A new dawn in hydrographic data is set to break, and it will cast light far beyond the realms of maritime navigation, impacting upon operational efficiency, safety, performance and sustainability for the entire industry. If you haven’t heard of S-100 yet, now is the time to get acquainted. NAVTOR’s Paul Elgar and Bjørn Kristian Sæstad, in charge of OEM business at the maritime technology company, give an expert introduction…
“It’s not a development, it’s a quantum leap in data and potential, both for navigators and the industry in general.”
Paul Elgar, like the new data standard he’s referring to, sounds like he means business.
Speaking from NAVTOR’s Norwegian headquarters, Elgar is trying to articulate, in as few words as possible, the scale of the change looming on the industry horizon with the adoption of the new S-100 standard from the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO).
“It’s night and day,” he says, juxtaposing it with the current “very basic” S-57 standard.
“And not just for navigators, but for planning and business teams on shore. Suddenly you’ll have this much richer level of data that will create better awareness and enable greatly enhanced decision making.”
He shrugs, giving up in the attempt to describe such a major change in simple words.
“Call it what you want,” he smiles, “an overhaul, a gamechanger… a revolution!”
Platform for progress
So, what exactly is this “revolutionary” S-100?
Well, let’s start with what it’s not.
It’s not the current maritime standard for official electronic charts (ENC), S-57, which was adopted by the IHO back in 1992 and is still used in today’s ECDIS systems.
This standard, designed for the exchange of hydrographic data between national hydrographic offices and for its distribution to manufacturers, mariners and other users, is, in Elgar’s words, “hopelessly outdated.” It simply cannot, he says, cope with the modern-day requirements of a transforming industry.
S-101 ENC combined with S-102 bathymetric surface data
“In a smart shipping age, it’s a major barrier to smart shipping,” adds his colleague Bjørn Kristian Sæstad. “It was designed to help with the move from paper to digital charts, but the industry has obviously evolved far beyond that. We now need to unlock the true value of data, and S-100 is a major step on that journey.”
The new framework, in essence, supports a far wider spectrum of maritime data sources, empowering a far broader range of products than ECDIS (which will itself undergo fundamental change) and benefitting users way beyond the bridge.
“Suddenly you’ll have a broad range of data layers all working together,” Elgar stresses, “with more seamless, real-time updates, greater detail, new formats, more functionality and usability, and a strong platform for autonomous shipping, amongst other things. There’s so much potential.”
But let’s navigate back to the basics for now.
At present, as anyone that’s seen a ENC will tell you, current ECDIS displays are “pretty basic”. That’s largely because all they display are standard ENCs. However, when the S-100 data becomes available on ECDIS displays in 2026 they will be transformed beyond the flat, 2D ENCs to new ENC (standard S-101) overlaid with bathymetric surface data (S-102), water level/tides (S-104), surface currents (S-111) and under keel clearance data (S-129). The result is akin to a 3D representation of the marine environment for safer, more informed, operational decision making.
“Imagine,” says Sæstad, “you want to move cargo in and out of a demanding harbour environment. Well, if you have precise data to give you a full-picture awareness of that environment, from the underwater features to the relevant tides and currents, then you can navigate with complete peace of mind. Furthermore, you can access the area with larger vessels than ever before, as you know exactly where they can, and can’t, be manoeuvred. This is a real boon for efficiency.
Photo: The S-100 Universal Hydrographic Data Model (Source: International Hydrographic Organization).
“So, all of a sudden, from greater operational insight you’ve also enabled a major business benefit, with economies of scale translating to increased revenues/profits, not to mention efficiencies from a sustainability perspective, with less voyages and emissions.
“This is one part of how S-100 can be a gamechanger.”
But it’s far from the whole story.
There is a dazzling array of S-100 product specifications, or data layers, gearing up for industry access. These encompass everything from marine traffic management (S-127), to ice information (S-411), Marine Protected Areas (S-122), route exchange format (S-421) and Port Collaborative Decision Making (S-2XX), to name a few. Companies, such as NAVTOR, can also develop their own data sources for distribution via the S-100 framework. And all these layers are available regardless of location – at sea or on shore – enabling a new level of “joined-up” decision making.
“As we’ve already seen,” Elgar states, “the impact of S-100 is not restricted to navigation – significant value can be realised for the maritime community as a whole. This ranges from improving port operations, to empowering autonomy, with far richer, more reliable and real-time data as the foundation of operations, through to better everyday fleet management and route-planning.”
To illustrate this final business case, relevant in today’s competitive market, he explains how huge quantities of data can be analysed onshore (or back of bridge) and then “pushed out” to the vessel ECDIS.
“So, in our customers’ cases, they could use our NavStation digital planning tool onshore (it’s mostly used on vessels today) to ingest and analyse all the latest data, before securely transferring optimal routes to the ECDIS. This would avoid ‘cluttering’ bridge systems, and transferring more data from shore to ship than is actually needed. The NavFleet management system would keep track of all real-time situations and performance to help continually optimise operations.”
He continues: “So, what we have here is an opportunity to increase the power and awareness of onshore teams with a new standard of quality data, while simplifying tasks at sea.
“That’s better for crews, and better for business. A win-win.”
NAVTOR, for its part, is focused on being at the forefront of S-100 developments and is already involved in IHO working groups and on S-100 based projects with the UK and French hydrographic offices. Just as importantly, Navtor has ongoing collaborations with a host of ECDIS manufacturers, supplying them with advanced software tools and engineering consultancy, to ensure they are ready with ECDIS systems in time for the IMO acceptance of S-100 ECDIS from 2026.
“We’re proud to have led the way in e-Navigation,” Sæstad comments, “from a start-up in 2011 to our current position as the industry’s largest distributor of ENCs, with e-Navigation and performance management and optimisation solutions on more than 8000 vessels worldwide.
“S-100 is the next ‘big thing’ for the industry, so we’re committed to being ahead of the curve.”
The team is looking to introduce S-100 data into solutions such as NavStation “as soon as it becomes available” and, at the time of writing, is working to finesse a compatible software kernel for ECDIS manufacturers to utilise.
“January 2026 may be the first time this data sees the light of day on ECDIS (with all new systems required to be compatible by 2029, although they can still utilise the S-57 standard after that point), however there’s an opportunity for manufacturers, shipowners, operators and other stakeholders to gain competitive advantage here,” Elgar concludes.
“All parties - suppliers and users - have to ensure compliance in good time, but with this richer data and the value-added possibilities it enables, I’d argue there’s clear benefits to being early movers on this major development.
“So, if you want a quantum leap ahead of the rest of the industry, start planning now.”