Standardization for safe global shipping

Increasing use of electronics at sea

By Morand Fachot

Carrying an estimated 90% of world trade and billions of passengers every year, international shipping represents the life blood of the global economy. Safety, always a major concern for seafarers, has made huge advances in the last century. However, the massive increase in traffic in recent decades requires, among other things, new or better communication and navigation solutions to maintain and improve safety levels. IEC TC (Technical Committee) 80: Maritime navigation and radiocommunication equipment and systems, prepares International Standards to ensure this is the case.

Navigation and communication equipment on Queen Mary 2 bridge (Photo: Cunard Line) Navigation and communication equipment on Queen Mary 2 bridge (Photo: Cunard Line)

Early adoption across borders

Shipping was amongst the very first industries to adopt widely implemented international safety standards. These cover equipment that may break down, catch fire or explode, and systems enabling a ship's crew to chart its way, know its position, minimize risks of collisions and groundings, communicate with other vessels and shore and stay informed about weather conditions.

Because of its inherently international nature, the safety of shipping is regulated by various UN (United Nations) and other agencies. 

The IMO (International Maritime Organization), the specialized UN (United Nations) agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships, has developed a comprehensive framework of global maritime safety regulations which are enforced on a worldwide basis. Of particular importance is the IMO International SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) Convention. TC 80 cooperates with IMO and prepares standards for maritime electronic navigation and communication equipment and systems.

Delegating standardization

There is a need for international agreement on standards in the shipping industry so as to avoid duplication and eliminate unnecessary barriers to trade as well as to ensure it is carried out safely, predictably and as freely as possible.

IMO does not generally produce detailed technical and test standards for maritime navigation and radiocommunication equipment and systems. Therefore, in agreement with IMO, TC 80 has adopted the role of producing these for maritime electronic navigation and radiocommunication equipment and systems.

From Morse code to satellite communication

Communication with ships was actually the first application of radio at the end of the 19th century. Ships started installing radio equipment for the ship's operations and gradually these also came to be used for distress and safety purposes.

The distress and safety system relied on wireless telegraphy using Morse code, the earliest and most famous example being the distress message sent from the Titanic exactly 100 years ago. Morse code was phased out 15 years ago in favour of a new system developed by the IMO called GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System). This uses radio and satellite communication and equipment that enable ships to be able to communicate with shore stations from anywhere at sea and at any time. GMDSS requirements form part of SOLAS, making GMDSS an essential tool for SAR (search and rescue).


For centuries, ships have relied on nautical charts and instruments such as compasses, astrolabes or sextants for safe navigation and positioning. Electronic equipment such as radars and sonars were introduced from the 1930s, initially on naval ships, to provide data on distance to and from other ships and shores and on navigational depth.

In recent years, significant changes have been phased in to the navigation equipment carried by ships. They now carry and rely upon improved radar equipment and automatic position fixing provided by satellite navigation systems. This year also sees the start of a phase-in programme for the mandatory carriage of electronic charts in the form of an IMO system called ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display and Information System), a computer-based navigation information system that can be used instead of paper nautical charts and integrates information from satellites.

The first edition of IEC standards for ECDIS, IEC 61174, was published in 1998; it is now on its third edition, reflecting the increased experience of its use in the field and detailed changes to IMO’s requirements. ECDIS is not only changing fundamentally the way that ships are navigating but has also highlighted the change in equipment on the ship’s bridge. The equipment is becoming highly complex and software-dominated. The products require updates, with due attention being given to their update status.

The mandatory carriage of ECDIS is certainly highlighting the issues of software maintenance to the many shipping companies who still have a ‘fit-and-forget’ attitude to bridge equipment. 

The IHO (International Hydrographic Organization), an intergovernmental organization representing the hydrographic community, recently updated its standard for electronic navigation charts and will complete work on the next generation of standards for electronic navigation chart databases in the next few years. This will lead to more changes in TC 80 standards for ECDIS and presentation of charted information.

To see and be seen

An AIS (Automatic Identification System) has been introduced which allows ships to provide information about them automatically to other ships and to coastal authorities.

Regulations that come into force at the beginning of July this year require that AIS be fitted aboard all new build passenger ships of 300 GT (gross tonnage) and upwards and to new cargo ships of 500 GT and upwards. In both cases, the regulations apply to ships engaged on international voyages.

Voyage data recorders, comparable to the so-called black boxes found on commercial aircraft, have been installed to record and protect ship data and voice recordings which can be recovered and analysed after an accident. 

This year sees the start of a phase-in programme for the carriage of a BNWAS (Bridge Navigational Watch Alarm System) designed to ensure that the bridge team is alert to the task and has not become incapacitated in any way. Automation of ship functions has resulted in ships carrying fewer and fewer crew; even large ships may now be crewed by as few as 13 personnel.

Recent and active TC

IEC TC 80 was set up in 1980 and has produced some 50 standards so far, not only supporting IMO requirements, but also for more general ship and shore applications. They also enable interoperability of equipment on different types of vessels which share the same radio spectrum and enable the interconnection of equipment on a vessel for the exchange of data.

The TC’s objective is to publish standards that gain international acceptance as suitable for type approval where this is required by the SOLAS Convention and ITU (International Telecommunication Union) certification when required.

By being represented in both IMO and ITU, TC 80 is able to influence the performance and technical content of those agencies' work. This is invaluable to manufacturing industry, in that the performance and technical standards represent the practical state of the current and emerging technology.

State-of-the-art systems for high-value assets

Ships are technically very sophisticated, high value assets (larger hi-tech vessels, like cruise ships, can cost over USD 500 million to build), and one of the fundamental trends in the maritime industry has been an increasing reliance on electrical and electronic technologies for navigation and communication. These technologies have moved well out of the mechanical era of the magnetic and gyro compass and into the electronic and information age. The bridge of a ship is now a dense concentration of navigation, communication and machinery control equipment, all of which has to work together.

Around 6% of the whole ship manufacturing cost is attributable to the navigation and communication equipment in the vessel. This gives a world market size of USD 1,7 billion for merchant ships, of USD 0,5 billion for fishing vessels and of USD 1,3 billion for pleasure craft.

Future trends improving collaboration

The major trend in technology is an increasing focus on improving collaboration within the bridge team, between the bridge team and pilot and with shore-side sources of information. Associated with this is the development of smarter interfaces between navigation sensors and bridge workstation applications. This is leading to new developments for data transfer via LAN (Local Area Networks) and for Bridge Alert Management for handling alarms.

Changes introduced by ITU in radio-frequency allocations and maximum acceptable levels of out-of-band emissions are promoting development of navigation radars not based on pulsed-magnetron designs. 

IMO has now embarked on a major programme called e-navigation. This is intended to integrate existing and new navigational tools, in particular electronic tools, in an all-embracing system that will contribute to enhanced navigational safety and operational efficiency while simultaneously reducing the burden on the navigator and taking account of environmental issues

For safer sailing in the future

TC 80 expects to see a significant increase in new standards development and liaison activity. This will be driven by the increased mid-ocean coverage of broadband satellite communications, new capabilities of satellite systems in low earth orbit, the potential of eLoran (enhanced electronic navigation) as an affordable alternative technology backup to satellite navigation systems for position/time reference, and by the potential offered by digital radio for cooperative-use of the radio frequency spectrum.

TC 80 will continue to support IMO with the development of new or updated standards for ship bridge equipment and systems and for such systems as GMDSS, AIS, shipborne equipment forLRIT (long-range identification and tracking). Work is currently under way on updating existing standards and preparing more than a dozen standards across all these systems.

This busy workload for the coming years and beyond will ensure shipping becomes even safer.

Navigation and communication equipment on Queen Mary 2 bridge (Photo: Cunard Line) Navigation and communication equipment on Queen Mary 2 bridge (Photo: Cunard Line)
Costa Concordia, January 2012: The best navigation equipment cannot prevent human error Costa Concordia, January 2012: The best navigation equipment cannot prevent human error
Electronic chart display. Electronic chart display.