After over 20 years of hard work, the maritime community has succeeded in its drive to ensure all SOLAS vessels use ENC with ECDIS. But why, asks Paul Elgar, OEM business relations, NAVTOR, can't those very same charts be accessed onshore?
Thirty years ago, when one or two companies started to look at supplying electronic navigational charts to the commercial shipping industry, there was no official ENC available. They set about digitising paper charts from all around the globe to form databases used on an ECDIS or ECS.
These databases became best-sellers and generated significant revenues for the companies involved. But at the same time, the maritime community understood that it was the responsibility of the National Hydrographic Offices to produce official navigational charts, known as ENC and that navigators could use only ENC in an ECDIS to replace paper charts eventually. It took many years before the Hydrographic Offices fulfilled their commitments to deliver ENC for their national waters.
Over the first decade of the new millennium, the production and uptake of ENC increased to the stage where the IMO could implement the ECDIS mandate, where SOLAS vessels would be required to use ECDIS and ENC within a specific timeframe. The ECDIS mandate ran from 2012 until 2018, during which time over 40,000 vessels made the switch from paper charts to ENC, contributing to improved safety and efficiency. But what about the shoreside part of the business? Surely, in the interests of safety and efficiency, they require ENC, too, right? Of course, the answer to that question is yes, and who would think otherwise, you may wonder? It's logical! Unfortunately, logic doesn't seem to be applied here.
A barrier to progress
As the biggest ENC distributor in the world, NAVTOR delivers ENC to much of the SOLAS fleet, but when a shipowner or management company asks us to supply them with ENC for use in their office, we must always disappoint them.
Imagine trying to explain to a large shipping company that they can pay a planning fee and get worldwide ENC on all their 100 vessels, but they can't pay a planning fee and get ENC in their office. The same problem occurs with software developers who need charts for their innovative applications, such as vessel tracking, situational awareness, route planning, emergency response, and so on.
We also see autonomous vessels entering the market, but I wonder how you navigate an autonomous vessel without charts in the control room onshore? Surely the IMO and IHO do not want unofficial databases used for critical navigational purposes?
The cost of inertia
The unfortunate reality we all face is that the price of ENC becomes prohibitive, so most companies revert to one of the few unofficial databases on the market today. At NAVTOR, we think this situation needs to change very quickly.
Compared to using it in an office environment, let's look at what it would cost to put worldwide ENC onto NAVTOR's NavStation software on a vessel. Onboard a ship, the NavStation application can typically use one of the Pay-As-You Sail (PAYS) ENC licenses onboard, so in effect, the cost is minimal. For navigation, the vessel will probably be paying an average of $5000 yearly for worldwide ENC, including the planning fee, so for the sake of argument, let's say the NavStation ENCs in total cost $1000 per year. If we were to use that same portfolio of charts in the office of the shipowner/manager, where obviously we can't charge using PAYS, the cost would be in the region of $250,000 for five users. Yes, you are reading it right, but Two Hundred and Fifty Thousand United States Dollars for the record. Per year! The reason for this is that Hydrographic Offices do not differentiate their prices between vessels and offices, so it's a one-price fits all (or not, in this case)
Last year we became hopeful that a new initiative launched by the IC-ENC RENC might solve the problem. IC-ENC announced that they were launching a non-SOLAS database populated with ENCs at much lower prices. However, the terms and conditions stated that the product was for use only on vessels, so there was no shoreside use there either. A further complication was that some Hydrographic Offices said yes to the initiative, some said no, and some said maybe, making the database unsellable in most scenarios. One year on, and the status with the IC-ENC non-SOLAS database is much the same as it was then. IC-ENC have their annual Distribution Working Group (DWG) meeting in May, and NAVTOR sincerely hopes that the use of ENC in non-navigational systems is at the top of its agenda.
Another RENC, the Norwegian-based PRIMAR, has stated that they have lobbied their Hydrographic Office members to allow shoreside use of ENCs, but without success. At NAVTOR, we don't understand why Hydrographic Offices would refuse this if they understood the importance of why it is needed. PRIMAR will meet some partners again in May, and once again, we hope that shoreside use of ENC is at the top of their agenda.
NAVTOR has also become aware that some Hydrographic Offices are launching their own Web Map Server services (WMS) on the Internet. That is fine for users who only want coverage of a country's national waters, but that is not the case for 99% of the maritime community. They need extensive coverage. And connecting to WMS services at each Hydrographic Office in the world is not something that could ever work in practice.
The use of unofficial databases has also become the norm for WMS/WMTS services from commercial companies such as BigOceanData, AIS Live, and MarineTraffic. For a small percentage of the cost of ENC, they can make unofficial charts available to thousands of users. But given a choice, they would probably use ENC in a heartbeat if the price was competitive.
The way forward
So, what does all this mean? The scenario now is that vessels plan and sail using official ENC, which everyone has spent so many years working towards. But in the office, most are using unofficial databases, or even Google maps to monitor voyages, plan routes, coordinate emergency responses and much more. We also recognise that with the impending arrival of the new S-100 framework, shoreside use of ENCs (S-101) with many other types of S-100 data will become very important and an absolute necessity for shipowners and management companies.
With better offshore communications becoming available, more and more planning activities are happening onshore and transferred to the vessel via secure communications.
NAVTOR urges the Hydrographic Office community, led by the IHO, to recognise that ENC is not just for SOLAS vessel navigation and work together with the commercial maritime industry to allow ENC to be used in many different applications, in many different scenarios and at acceptable prices. This development can only be for the benefit of everyone. Hydrographic Offices would see their revenues increase significantly, and distributors like NAVTOR would be able to service the entire maritime community with ENC. Finally, it would improve safety and efficiency, which is essentially what everyone is working towards.