Notable New Books

The Electronic Chart: Functions, Potential and Limitations of a New Marine Navigation System, By Hecht, Berking, Büttgenbach, Jonas and Alexander

As with everything in the computing world, electronic charting systems have evolved at a dizzying pace over the past decade. The worldwide “official” hydrographic community (government-controlled hydrographic offices) has been scrambling to keep up with technological developments and to impose some order and standardization on a development process that is being driven in large part in a somewhat anarchic manner by the technology companies in the private sector.

It took years of intense debate on numerous committees for the official hydrographic community to agree on protocol for storing, exchanging and displaying electronic navigation data. Under the auspices of the International Hydrographic Office, headquartered in Monaco, and the International Maritime Organization (a branch of the United Nations), these protocol were codified in the mid-1990s in a series of documents. The most important of these documents established a common framework for the transfer of digital data (IHO S-57), what kind of information has to be included in electronic charts and the manner in which it is to be presented (IHO S-52); and the performance standards for the hardware and software used to display electronic charts (the electronic chart display and information system, or ECDIS, standards).

Given the pace of change in electronic charting, any standards that tried to freeze the developmental process would rapidly be bypassed and become irrelevant. But if the standards change continuously, there is no stable foundation on which hydrographic offices can coordinate their continuing activities. Consequently, the IHO has adopted the practice of revising the standards every few years — typically every five years — and locking them in place for the next few years. What has been a confusing picture is gradually taking on some semblance of public order; although, behind the scenes there is continuing ferment within hydrographic offices themselves, between hydrographic offices, and between the official and private sectors.

With this emerging semblance of order, The Electronic Chart is a timely publication. It takes a detailed look at the current state of electronic charting, the standards and protocol that govern its development at the official level, and how this translates into navigational technology and practice on the bridge of a ship. There is, so far as I know, no other book on the market that presents this kind of an overview, with considerable depth of information on the full range of subjects encompassed by electronic charting.

The book opens with An Imaginary Voyage with an Electronic Chart, giving the reader a sense of the power of the new technology, albeit very much with a focus on the bridge of a big ship. From here, the authors delve into the components of an electronic navigation system; methods of creating and presenting electronic charts; the numerous navigational functions that become possible with electronic charting (such as decluttering a chart by only displaying critical information, changing the displayed depth contours to suit the draft of the boat, all kinds of alarms, real-time display of a boat’s position, route-planning functions, and a host of other neat features); integration with other navigational systems, notably radar; updating of electronic charts; safety issues; economic aspects, including a cost-benefit analysis of paper versus electronic charting; regulatory and legal implications; training; and the status of electronic-chart development.

The book delves deeply into the technical aspects, as well: what constitutes electronic charting; the differing technologies underlying vector and raster charts; the issues facing hydrographic offices in creating electronic charts; the underlying concerns that drive the manner in which the data is displayed; and a host of other issues, including the mass of acronyms that pepper any discussion of these subjects.

As an author with a broad interest in charts and charting, I consider it a tremendous reference work. I did, however, have some trouble defining the target audience. In particular, it should be noted that for the end user of electronic charting systems (whether a professional navigator or recreational boater) who wants to fully understand the positives and negatives of electronic charts, and some advice on how to use them, including their limitations and other such practical questions, the book has way too much background technical information and is not focused sharply enough. In other words, it needs decluttering.

The Electronic Chart includes a CD that helps fill this pragmatic niche. The CD has enough electronic charting software and electronic chart data to simulate taking a ship into Rotterdam, the busiest port in Europe, using ECDIS. The CD contains its own 108-page (printable) manual that explains in detail how to use the numerous functions of ECDIS. I have to say, I didn’t do very well on my simulated approach to Rotterdam; it will take quite some time to clean up the oil spill I must have created. Nevertheless, reading the manual and playing with the software gave me a much better handle on the practical aspects of electronic charting, and ECDIS in particular, than the book itself. The book that still needs to be written is one that specifically supports this CD and provides access to simulated electronic charting systems that do not meet the full ECDIS standards (noncompliant systems are all that is found on pleasure boats, and also on many ships) by tightly focusing on the needs of ship and pleasure-boat navigators, and only delving into the underlying electronic chart technology and related issues in so far as an understanding of these is necessary to learn how to use electronic charting systems effectively and safely on the bridge or at the helm. Maybe the authors can tackle this one next.

GITC, Lemmer, Netherlands; 283 pages $61.50 ($55 EUR).

Nigel Calder