Developing standards for safer navigation

IEC TC supports increased use of electronics for navigation and communication at sea

By Morand Fachot

Safety at sea, always a major concern for seafarers, has made huge advances in the last hundred years, particularly where navigation and communication systems are concerned. International Standards for such types of equipment are prepared by IEC TC (Technical Committee) 80: Maritime navigation and radiocommunication equipment and systems.

Navigation equipment displays on container ship (Photo: Maersk) Navigation equipment displays on container ship (Photo: Maersk)

State-of-the-art systems to protect assets

The massive increase in shipping traffic in recent decades requires, among other things, new or improved communication and navigation solutions to maintain or enhance safety levels. IEC TC 80, set up in 1980, took on the role of producing International Standards for maritime navigation and radiocommunication equipment and systems in agreement with IMO (International Maritime Organization), the specialized UN agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships.

Ships are technically very sophisticated, high-value assets and one of the fundamental trends in the maritime industry has been an increasing reliance on electrical and electronic technologies for navigation and communication.

It’s good to talk

Communication between ships and from ship to shore is essential for the safety of navigation as well as for the rescue of ships and crews in distress. 

Communication with ships was actually the first application of radio at the end of the 19th century. Only gradually did it start to be used for distress and safety purposes. The most famous example is the wireless distress message sent from the Titanic on 15 April 1912 using Morse code. 

Morse was phased out 15 years ago in favour of GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) a new system developed by the IMO. GMDSS uses radio and satellite communication and equipment that enables ships to communicate with shore stations from anywhere at sea and at any time. To this day, IEC TC 80 has prepared and published 11 standards covering all aspects and technologies of GMDSS. 

In 1979 the IMO adopted the International Convention on Maritime SAR (search and rescue). GMDSS requirements form part of the IMO's SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) Convention, making it an essential tool for SAR. 

The IEC 61097 series of standards for GMDSS is based on IMO resolutions defining equipment performance standards for all components of the system. IMO is constantly reviewing these and adding new ones as more requirements are identified, particularly concerning security and piracy and increased interest in shipping traffic in Polar Regions, each of which aspects poses unique navigational and SAR concerns.

Keeping off the rocks

Mariners have always tried to chart their course to reach their destination safely, avoiding other ships, natural hazards such as reefs or treacherous currents and areas that present a danger for other reasons (piracy, conflict zones, disputed waterways, etc.). Electronic equipment in the form of radars and sonars was first introduced on naval ships from the 1930s to provide data on distance to and from other ships and shores as well as on navigational depth.

In recent years, the navigation equipment carried by ships has seen significant improvements. Ships 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 phased-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 was published in 1998; it is now on its third edition.

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.

No navigation, no communication without IEC standards

In 1976, the organization known as Inmarsat (International Maritime Satellite Organization) was established to provide emergency maritime communications. A pioneering role was played by the IMO in its establishment.

TC 80 prepares and updates International Standards for Inmarsat, covering SES (ship earth station) and EGC (enhanced group call) equipment. The latter category is capable of receiving multiple-address messages and is designed for use in GMDSS and LRIT (long-range identification and tracking) applications. These constantly updated standards enhance and increase the capabilities of the Inmarsat element of GMDSS. 

All maritime electronic navigation and communication equipment and systems like BNWAS (Bridge Navigational Watch Alarm System), ECDIS, AIS (Automatic Identification System) or GMDSS, which play such an important role in maritime safety, rely on the work of IEC TC 80 which has produced some 50 International Standards so far, and continues to work on new ones.

Navigation equipment displays on container ship (Photo: Maersk) Navigation equipment displays on container ship (Photo: Maersk)
Arctic Princess Photo Statoil Safe navigation is vital for ships such as LNG or oil tankers (Arctic Princess - Photo: Statoil)
Navigation and communication equipment on bridge of the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner (Photo: Cunard) Navigation and communication equipment on bridge of the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner (Photo: Cunard)