S-MODE: Why it matters

01 Feb 2017 The Navigator

What is S-Mode and why does it matter?

It can be difficult to become familiar with navigation systems on ships, particularly if they are complex and you have not had experience with a similar type of equipment. This is nothing new, but it is getting more challenging. The Nautical Institute has been examining the issues surrounding these difficulties for years. Could S-Mode be the answer? 

Back in 1996, The Nautical Institute held the first of a series of international conferences on the theme of ‘Integrated Bridge Systems’. The aim was to start an essential debate on issues concerning design, operation and training. Even though electronic charts were only in their infancy, it was becoming clear that several challenges were emerging from the growing level of technology being used on the bridge, and that The Nautical Institute was in a good position to address them.

A key issue raised at that first event was why there were so many different radar designs, and why the various knobs and buttons couldn’t be standardised across all manufacturers. The manufacturers at the conference argued that they had to sell to a wide range of customers and therefore needed to differentiate themselves on what they considered ‘best design’. In addition, the sheer manufacturing challenge of moving all their knobs and buttons around would be commercially prohibitive. We recognised these issues and vowed to work closely with manufacturers to address what we could.

The origins of S-Mode
By 2006, the average bridge was becoming equipped with increasingly sophisticated technology, and more multi-function electronic chart systems seemed inevitable. That year, the IMO adopted a new work programme called eNavigation to address the challenge of uncoordinated complex navigation systems. It was agreed that this programme should be specifically designed to address the ‘user needs’ of mariners.

The future of navigation systems at that time seemed to be focused on computer displays controlled by menu choices. It occurred to The Nautical Institute’s Technical Committee that a Standard, or S-Mode, could address mariners’ concerns by allowing a standard mode of operation at the press of a button. At the same time, it would allow manufacturers to continue developing specialist, non-standard functions that could be used outside S-Mode.

This S-Mode concept would also address the growing challenge for training organisations of having to decide which systems to use for student training. Most training centres purchasing simulators to use for training might be able to afford one or maybe even two models from different manufacturers, but there were so many more varieties on the market. They wanted their students to be as prepared as possible to join a ship and be both competent and confident.

In 2008, The Nautical Institute published an article about the S-Mode concept in our journal, Seaways. We invited feedback and started working with the International Federation of Shipmasters’ Association (IFSMA) to introduce the idea to the IMO under its eNavigation agenda. Our proposal centred on an S-Mode with three specific attributes:  

  • A default display presented at the press of a button;  
  •  A standard menu structure on this display, where all essential tasks could be operated in the same way across all manufacturers;   
  • A standard interface device (mouse, trackpad, joystick, etc.)

This approach was based on a series of scenarios. The first was a mariner who joined a ship with minimal time for familiarisation. They could simply press the S-Mode button and be confident in their duties. Another scenario focused on a Master wanting an officer who was new to the ship to only operate in S-Mode until they could demonstrate competence in the manufacturer’s own mode.

The third situation looked at a pilot joining a ship, perhaps at night, and needing to be familiar with the functionality immediately to assist with critical decisions. Finally, we analysed the situation where a bridge team who all had different personal preferences for system setup might need to share a common system to work together effectively and efficiently.

Making S-Mode reality
Fast forward once more to present time. The IMO has chosen the development of S-Mode as one of its top six priorities for e-navigation. IMO member countries and the wider maritime industry have been tasked to to develop a set of guidelines for S-Mode by 2019.

Any mariner could, in a few minutes, scratch out on a blank piece of paper what they think S-Mode should look like. However, this approach would lead to multiple proposals and no consensus. The Nautical Institute insists that the S-Mode guidelines should have the widest possible input from the estimated 400,000 navigating officers in the global fleet. This feedback should then result in a small number of possible solutions that will then be thoroughly tested in simulation for effectiveness before a final decision is made.

It is also important that any solution should be future-proofed (perhaps through software updates), so that S-Mode evolves with time and technology to remain effective.

Over the past ten years, many international workshops have debated the concept of S-Mode. One issue that is often raised is that the industry may be better served by greater general standardisation than by two distinctly different modes that are selected and controlled by a button (see next article). The Nautical Institute believes that we need to begin by establishing exactly what needs to be standardised before we decide how this can best be done.

To that end, we have joined up with manufacturers (via the CIRM) and the wider industry to create an online survey to establish the essential tasks that need to be standardised. See page 10 for more information.

Everyone agrees that bridge equipment needs to allow mariners to be effectively familiar with the navigation system on any ship they encounter, in as little time as possible. This will add to the navigator’s confidence and improve the safety of the entire vessel.

Please discuss these issues with your bridge team, colleagues and class-mates and complete the survey. It will take a matter of minutes to fill in and will ensure that your voice is heard. This is your chance to improve your future and the safety of navigation worldwide. www.surveymonkey.com/r/Nav-Funct.

Author: David Patraiko FNI, Director of Projects at The Nautical Institute