Step By Step, Coast Guard Eases Into Electronic Future

July 24, 2017

The Coast Guard’s updating of its policy on electronic charts, as contained in NVIC 01-16, will be welcomed by many in the maritime community who have been advocating for a full transition to electronic charts.

No one doubts that an electronic future is ahead. The NVIC notes the superiority of real-time electronic charts for projecting future vessel positions: “The USCG recognizes the benefit of real-time positioning data convey on an ENC [electronic navigation chart], and that it can provide greater situation awareness than what could be achieved using paper charts. Therefore, USCG considers position information integrated into a displayed ENC equivalent to the fixing and plotting requirements in title 33 C.F.R. section 164.” As the NVIC itself notes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stopped printing paper charts in 2013.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the “analog” world can or should be completely left behind. The NVIC cautions, “As vessels are increasingly networked, and dependent on external inputs including EPFD signals and software updates, they are also subject to cyber related failures or exploitation.”

After leaked documents revealed that the U.S. and other governments were electronically spying on the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel, German intelligence agencies began returning to a retro technology, but one deemed secure and unhackable for certain confidential messages: manual typewriters and couriers.

In the maritime world, the U.S. Navy discontinued instructing cadets in the use of the sextant in 2006. Traditional celestial navigation was deemed to be unnecessary as global positioning system (GPS) became widely available and covered the globe.

But guess what? In 2016, the Navy brought back the sextant. The vulnerabilities of the global GPS system to the ever-evolving tactics of cyber-warfare had given the Navy second thoughts. An enemy can’t hack a sextant. This did not mean the Navy was retreating in any way from technology; it was just making sure that in the event of system failure, officers had enough navigational knowledge to carry on.

NVIC 01-16 recommends the same thing for pilots and captains. Safety management systems should include procedures to respond to system failure. It also suggests that all vessels have backup systems—either a secondary display system with stored navigation information, or paper charts.

Some may find the Coast Guard’s progress toward electronic navigation too slow. But we think a cautious, step-by-step approach is prudent.

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