US Coast Guard to allow electronic charts as primary navigation


The U.S. Coast Guard has established guidance that, for the first time, allows the use of electronic charts instead of paper charts.

In February, the Coast Guard issued a Navigation and Inspection Circular (NVIC) with guidelines on what is considered equivalent to paper charts and publications. It applies to U.S.-flagged vessels subject to domestic chart and publications requirements.

“We know people wanted to use electronic charting systems as their primary means of navigation,” said Mike Sollosi, chief of the Coast Guard’s Navigation Systems Division.

The guidelines are voluntary, but if an electronic charting system (ECS) is adopted the companies must follow the NVIC requirements. The Coast Guard is working on a draft regulation for ECS.

Vessels using official electronic charts as the primary navigation system must have an equivalent system hooked up to an independent backup power supply, according to the circular. Otherwise, paper charts are required as backup.

According to the circular, the following equipment must be integrated with ECS to be equivalent to paper chart requirements: an external electronic position-fixing device, an automatic identification system (AIS), a gyrocompass or other means to determine the vessel’s heading by non-magnetic means that can transmit that information, and a marine radar. In addition, if a voyage data recorder has been installed, it should be integrated with the ECS.

Most companies that are part of the American Waterway Operators (AWO) are using ECS but still carry paper charts to meet Coast Guard regulations, according to Caitlyn Stewart, AWO’s senior manager for regulatory affairs.

However, the equipment requirement detailed in the circular is difficult for AWO members to meet.

“In order to be accepted by the Coast Guard, ECS must have integrated hardware and software components, which current commercially available ECS do not, and must be interfaced with other navigation equipment including marine radar, which may not be possible without radar replacement,” said Stewart. The AWO is working with the Towing Safety Advisory Committee, which will make recommendations to the Coast Guard as part of the rulemaking.

“The Coast Guard is reconsidering the implications of our use of ‘integration’ regarding bridge equipment, radar in particular,” Sollosi said. “We will continue to respond to feedback as it is received from waterway users.”

Sollosi said the NVIC process, with input from the industry, will help the Coast Guard as it works on the new rule. “These comments will do a lot to improve our regulations,” he said. “It is serving to inform us quite a bit so we can put out a better regulation.”

Sollosi said there are many benefits in using ECS, including displaying navigation data on one screen, rather than having to consult a paper chart, along with vessel radar and AIS information. The vessel’s position is instantaneous and safety alerts can be programmed. The circular states that ECS can provide substantially more navigational information than paper charts, and may help navigational safety beyond that of paper charts.

However, the mandate for new regulation to show an economic benefit is proving difficult, Sollosi said. “The economic analysis does not come out favorably,” he said. “We cannot demonstrate an accident history that was caused by people who were navigating on paper charts and would have been prevented if they had been navigating with electronic charts. And you have to do that.”

By Professional Mariner Staff