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January 2016 Issue

Apps Benefit E-Navigation
Michael Bergmann
Software applications, or “apps”, have become a ubiquitous part of our lives, and several industries use them in their operations. While commercial shipping is no stranger to the concept, the potential of apps for navigation is largely untapped.

Apps have been made widely popular with the rise of the smartphone and the tablet. With that, a sizeable number of apps have been developed for the maritime industry, with functions ranging from checklists (e.g., to help with international convention requirements, fire safety or marine pollution prevention) to TripAdvisor-like apps that inform boaters about facilities offered at marinas.

So far, however, few apps are available to support professional commercial navigation. One reason for this lies in the existing regulatory paradigm for bridge equipment. The current regime, which drives the development and implementation of systems used on the bridges of ships sailing under those regulations, requires manufacturers to attain full type approval for their systems, as well as additional certification before being approved for operational use.

This certification is necessary to ensure that solutions are safe, but also slows down development work. As a result, many systems now installed on bridges are based on system architecture from up to two decades ago.

While the maritime industry has been trending towards integrated systems within recent years, it is still far from a complete integration. In new integrated navigation systems (INS), you find displays allowing you to switch between different modes, say, from a radar to an ECDIS display. But even that is just a case of different systems sharing a display rather than being truly integrated.

In the last 10 to 15 years, the electronics industry has seen a paradigm shift to a component- and app-centric approach. Individual software components are developed to execute certain functions within a parent application. They can only run within their parent software, which provides commonly used functions, such as “copy” and “paste”. A prominent example is MS Word, which runs within MS Office.

In this way, the underlying parent application prevents one app from negatively affecting others. If correctly implemented, new apps can be easily added or changed without affecting the rest of the system. As a large number of basic functionalities is already handled by the parent application, the app development can focus on specific functionalities. This concept makes development and innovation much more efficient.

The aviation industry has already established this concept in the shape of “Electronic Flight Bags”, which use a parent app that allows inclusion of function-specific apps requiring less type approval.

With a focus on human-centered design, these systems seamlessly allow for both easy switching between apps and exchange of information. Users can also download and install new apps as they are launched.

One success factor for apps is the ready availability of both static data with slow update cycles (such as ENCs and digital publications) and situational information with quick update cycles (dynamic real-time data such as weather or tidal) tailored to specific needs. In the “Electronic Flight Bag” example, a pilot can rapidly switch between different situational displays to enable better, faster decision making.

Another benefit of the app concept is a reduction of data density, as the information can be distributed over several app screens. Currently, the use of single, specific devices is very common. However, the use of several devices that intercommunicate allows a simultaneous view on different aspects of a situation.

The ability of devices to intercommunicate could even extend to the exchange of ship data with shore-side services and allow vessel traffic centers to provide accurate guidance.
The benefits that the app concept could bring to users are only limited by the developer’s creativity. Since they tend to be easy to use, apps could even play a supporting role in navigational training. More and more focus is put on the usability of applications, which is also an important aspect of e-navigation. Lightweight and easy-to-use apps not only solve tasks efficiently, but also help to save on staff training and familiarization.

A vital aspect of e-navigation is how to deliver the intelligence within the information. A user needs specific data to carry out a particular task. Weather data, for example, is important on a general basis. However, when the same data are used in tasks like route optimization and fleet performance analysis, they can boost the performance of a mariner, a vessel or an entire fleet.

In the future, e-navigation will focus more on applications and services relying on extensive data exchange. The integration of bridge systems along with faster data rates and a growing number of sensors will increase onboard connectivity. In ship-shore connectivity, higher bandwidth channels will allow for more extensive data exchange, which in turn will improve ship and fleet logistics as well as real-time voyage optimization. As a result, increased real-time data will help to improve operations.

The certification of hardware and parent applications, along with methods to ensure necessary encapsulation routines, may allow a new level of type approval focused on specific apps rather than full systems. This situation has been recognized by the e-navigation working groups at the IMO, the International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities and CIRM.

Michael Bergmann is president of Comité International Radio-Maritime (CIRM) and Jeppesen maritime industry director. He is working closely with international organizations in the maritime sector, such as IHO, IMO (United Nations), IEC, IALA and others to increase safety of life at sea.


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