E-nav software lets mariners take control of a sea of information

Developers of navigation electronics have been steadily upgrading software programs that integrate with other onboard systems to create highly customizable chart and traffic data, and mariners are responding. As the software improves, more and more vessels are relying on it as their primary system.

Capt. Jordan May, director of the Master of Towing Vessels Association, said that while the towing industry is traditional and reluctant to change, navigation systems are becoming standard practice. “It’s taken hold across the board,†he said.

A Transas Electronic Chart System aboard a Staten Island Ferry. E-nav software integrates data from a range of sources, both on board and external, to help mariners navigate safely and choose optimal routes. (Photo courtesy Transas/Paul Welling)

May, who works for Starlight Marine Services in Alameda, Calif., said he’s been using two such programs — Rose Point Navigation System’s ECS and Jeppesen Marine’s Workboat Navigator — for the past few years, and similar tools for a decade.

Jeppesen’s system was first marketed to mariners on the inland waterways, but is now being deployed in coastal vessels, said Joel Meltzner, program manager with Jeppesen Marine, based in Englewood, Colo. The software provides detailed vector-based digital charts, location data, Notices to Mariners and even input from other onboard sources such as GPS, radar, AIS, heading sensors and cameras.

Charts and notices are updated weekly. A feature called River ETA assists the mariner with arrival times and predicting passing locations.

Rose Point Navigation Systems, based in Redmond, Wash., introduced its system a few years ago. It is designed to help the mariner improve operational efficiency, plan voyages, predict courses and passing points and overlay charts and sensors.

“I hit a button and all the charts update right before your eyes over the Internet — that takes five minutes,†May said. “Compare that to the old way. Depending on the week, you might have 10 hours of chart directions to go over with a pencil, so it’s a significant time saver for the crews on board. There’s some pretty quick guys out there, but I haven’t seen anybody who can think faster than a computer.â€

He said cuts to manning requirements have forced mariners to find tools to make their jobs more efficient and effective.

“This stuff updates eight times a second,†he said. “I don’t know any crew who can do that. It’s pretty darn simple — it’s less complex than the Xbox 360. It’s just point and click.â€

Before the Bay Area, May worked near Anchorage, Alaska, where he used the systems to navigate the dangerous conditions posed by 40-foot tides and ice. Now he faces a different sort of challenge. “Here, it’s the fast ferries that go by at 35 knots,†he said. “They go by so fast, it doesn’t even help to look. They still maintain that speed in zero visibility. It’s pretty intimidating. The nav software is not Coast Guard-required, but our company offered to get it, and thank God.â€

McAllister Towing and Transportation Co. put the Rose Point system on its New York Harbor-based tugboats, installed on portable IBM ThinkPad laptop computers.

And on the West Coast, the Columbia River Pilots Association’s members recognized about 10 years ago that they would benefit from specialized software because they guide vessels on a river with constant bottom changes and dangerous currents. Eventually, they developed their own product called TransView 32, which incorporated real-time AIS data to provide a “meeting locator†that estimated passing points with other vessels.

A similar AIS-based system developed by the Volpe Center has since been deployed on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

May said each system has its pros and cons, but he lauded Rose Point’s willingness to work with users to improve the software.

“I can call or send them an e-mail, and they’ll tweak the software and send an update and it immediately changes on the PC,†he said. “For example, the software didn’t track a tally of total miles — I sent that to them, and they’re working on it. It’s pretty slick that they’re that receptive and reactive to it.â€

“It’s very customizable,†he continued. “Jeppesen and the Nobletec version, they’re also customizable, but I like the feel and layout of what Rose Point has done.â€

In addition to the safety benefits, Jeppesen promotes its system’s ability to save mariners money on their transit. Recognition of a likely vessel-traffic bottleneck later in the voyage may convince a captain to reduce engine power.

“You have vessels going full throttle — going as fast as they can — and when they get there, they find out maybe there’s eight vessels already waiting in the queue, and maybe there’s bad weather conditions,†Meltzner said. “Now they can make (earlier) decisions and maybe go half-throttle instead of full throttle, and they save fuel.â€

Paul Welling, sales manager of marine technologies for Transas, based in Bothell, Wash., said his company’s navigation software is aimed at the “high-end professional market†and includes a full predictor that lets users create a digital ship model to show where the vessel will be at a certain point in the future if it maintains speed and course and rate of turn. By changing the variables, mariners can create an accurate prediction of the vessel’s location.

“Our Electronic Chart System (ECS) is identical to our ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display and Information System) software,†Welling said. “The only difference is that our ECDIS is loaded onto type-approved hardware, and the ECS is not.â€

Transas’ software runs on a standard PC — currently, it’s only Windows XP-compatible, but a Windows 7 version is due out this summer — and integrates with AIS, GPS, radar and other vessel systems. It also offers the ability to record navigation and route data, alarms, chart information, warnings and other information and store it for up to five years.

“This feature is important for pre- and debriefings,†Welling said, “but also, let’s say you go into the port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, for example; the next time you go there, you can play it back and see how you did it before.â€

Transas also maintains its own chart database, and bundles the software with additional tools. NaviPlan is a complex voyage planning package that considers tides, currents, weather, schedule and chart information to help plan routes, then works with Chart Assistant to order and manage licenses and updates, install them, and generate status reports for vessel management and inspections.

“We really designed ours for professional mariners, and accordingly, we emphasize training,†Welling said. “If you buy our software, we recommend you get properly trained.â€

May admits that he’s probably using the Rose Point and Jeppesen systems to only about 10 percent of their capacity. “There are all sorts of classes you could take,†he said. “It’s capable of doing a lot more than I do. The software has pushed the envelope so far, it’s as big a deal as radar was in World War II.

“It’s like somebody turned the lights on,†he said. “It wasn’t too long ago you were navigating with a compass and watch, and praying. Although you don’t want to rely on it 100 percent, this is a great tool, and I’ll take any tool I can get.â€

By Professional Mariner Staff