01 Feb 2017 The Navigator

Raising standards together Users and manufacturers must work together to ensure a smooth path to S-Mode success.

CIRM is an organisation representing multiple manufacturers of bridge navigation equipment. We are currently working with several organisations, including The Nautical Institute, to develop an initial set of Guidelines on S-Mode. In general, our views tend to be well-aligned with other stakeholders in the shipping industry. Yet, on the specific matter of S-Mode, our views at the CIRM differ from some of the other organisations. While we fully acknowledge that the drivers behind S-Mode are valid, we believe that alternative solutions can be developed that are more practical than one single, fully standardised mode of operation.

Watch those analogies!
When discussing S-Mode, I’ve noticed that some people like to introduce analogies to other industries. But we should be cautious in doing so.

I often hear questions along the lines of: “Why can’t a ship’s bridge be more like an airplane cockpit?” Such questions reflect the widely-held belief that cockpit navigation systems are standardised to a much greater degree than bridge navigation systems and are therefore easier to learn or use. They lead on to the notion that the shipping industry should try to emulate the air industry to make the mariner’s life easier.

It is true that the layout and controls of cockpit navigation systems share a higher degree of standardisation than systems on a ship’s bridge, and perhaps there is inspiration here for manufacturers of bridge equipment. However, the idea that cockpit systems require less rigorous training is false. The fact is, an airplane pilot who has not been properly trained and certified on the specific airframe, and on the specific systems installed, is not permitted in the navigator’s seat.

Sometimes the analogy has a different focus: “Why can’t the equipment on a bridge be as simple to use as the systems on a car?” It is indeed the case that an automobile’s core systems are similar enough in design for a licensed driver to be able to intuitively understand how to drive any car. Again, perhaps there are some general lessons to be learned here. But to compare driving a car to navigating a ship is not helpful at all. Consider the wide range of skilled tasks that a bridge team must undertake during a full voyage – preparation, planning, monitoring, reacting, decision-making – and the array of sophisticated systems required to carry out each task. Now contrast that with the smaller number of relatively simple tasks and systems needed to drive a car.

More standardisation, please!
So, why are bridge navigation systems produced by different manufacturers so different from each other?

SOLAS requirements adopted by IMO specify how navigational systems must perform. Beyond these 'minimum requirements', manufacturers can innovate and introduce additional features. This allows them to differentiate their products from their competitors and to serve the changing needs of their customers. I have often spoken with mariners who express fierce preference for a particular brand of equipment, simply because it suits the way they like to work.

Manufacturers are not deaf to calls for more standardisation across bridge navigation equipment. It is undeniable that different brands of navigation system can have significant differences in design. The differences become greater as systems become increasingly feature-rich. Despite this, the introduction of type-specific familiarisation training for ECDIS systems has been unpopular in the past with many shipping companies and users.

Finding a centre ground
It is no secret that CIRM is resistant to introducing a fully-standardised mode of operation into navigation equipment. The reasons behind our resistance are numerous. We believe that, rather than trying to standardise the full Human-Machine Interface (HMI) by committee, with inevitable negative impacts on manufacturer innovation and user preference, users and manufacturers should work together to increase the standardisation of navigation equipment in general.

This idea is not new, and in recent years a concerted effort has been made by bodies such as the IMO and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), to increase the standardisation of navigation equipment. This has resulted in revised equipment standards that include measures such as default control settings, partial harmonisation of HMI terminology, logical grouping of data and control functions and save/recall functionality. However, the benefits of these measures will not be realised for some years, as they will in most cases only be present on new equipment, which can take decades to spread through the global fleet.

There is still a long way to go; we accept that.

CIRM acknowledges that users and customers demand better standardisation across systems and a reduction of the familiarisation training burden. We also believe that these drivers can be met by a 'middle-ground' approach. This involves identifying and standardising the essential user interface information and controls needed for core navigational tasks, and is backed up by an emphasis on robust human-centred design.

Our concept of 'S-Mode' does not relegate standardisation to a separate mode or stand-alone button. Rather, it is 'always-on'. Many lessons can be learned from smartphones, where standardised icons that call up basic functions are easily recognised wherever they are located on any brand of phone.

Standardisation of terminology can also improve the situation – that is, what a feature or function is called. Additionally, standardised grouping of information elements within logical information blocks can ensure that related tems are displayed together.

Practical measures such as these can be developed in collaboration with users, to ensure their needs are addressed. At the same time, though, this 'middleground' approach is not overly prescriptive. It allows manufacturers to continue innovating their products and differentiating their brands whilst making sure that they adhere to a comprehensive set of standardised requirements. Perhaps that offers us the best of both worlds?

Author: Richard Doherty, Deputy Secretary-General, Comité International Radio-Maritime (CIRM)

Comité International Radio-Maritime (CIRM) is the principal international association for marine electronics companies and a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in consultative status to the International Maritime Organization (IMO).