Given technical advances and the improved reliability of electronic data systems, could they provide conclusive evidence in marine investigations? This was the question posed at a London Shipping Law Centre seminar at the London office of Clyde & Co on Monday (December 8th).
The speakers and contributors from the floor agreed broadly that they could provide significant evidence as to how accidents occurred but not always. However, this could not always be relied on because such systems remained greatly susceptible to technical corruption. It followed that their evidential value in court was questionable.
Consequently, there was strong support for the continued deployment of paper charts, at least in the near future, to provide a supporting perspective.
Captain Stephen Angove, of Clyde & Co, provided an introductory survey of the state and range of electronic systems. VDRs and SVDRs enabled investigators to review procedures and instructions made immediately before incidents occurred, thereby helping to identify causes. These systems had variously to be fitted to cargo ships over 3000 gt and to all passenger ships and ro-ros.
VDR/SVDR signals covered ship’s position, speed, heading, bridge and communications audio, radar data, AIS, alarms, rudder and engine order and responses, hull openings, fire doors and watertight status, acceleration and hull stresses, wind speed and direction and echo sounder.
Fixed VDRs/SVDRs provided much longer beacon life than float free devices. The capital and recovery costs of fixed devices were generally higher and speed of recovery and access to information slower than with float free.
Data must be recorded in both fixed and float free capsules for at least 48 hours and for 30 days in the VDR itself. Bridge audio must deploy indoor and outdoor microphones for separate recordings. However, VDR might not do the job if recording time was too limited, if there were signal faults in the input device, data was corrupted, or a capsule was not recovered.
The Automatic Identification System (AIS) for ships and vessel traffic services (VTS) identified and located ships by exchanging data with nearby vessels, AIS base stations and satellites. Ships could be detected round bends and behind obstructions such as islands, utilising better penetration in rain than radar, enabling improved detection in poor weather.
This data supplemented marine radar, still the primary electronic method of collision avoidance. AIS had to be carried on all seagoing vessels of 300 gt and more, and on all passenger ships, as specified in the SOLAS Convention 1974.
However, VTS recorded AIS information via VDR/SVDR would not be retained indefinitely. Some coastal stations might not make information readily available, would do so too late or erase it; and some VHF frequencies might prove out of range.
ECDIS was becoming the primary navigation system, using Government-approved chart data conforming to international standards. ECDIS should record the entire voyage with regular time marks to enable reconstruction of what happened just before an accident. Some errors stemmed from users’ limited understanding of system capabilities.
While ECDIS has been fast replacing traditional paper charts, the industry had reservations about relying on electronics. Indeed, SOLAS still required all ships, irrespective of size, to use nautical charts and publications as well to plan, plot and monitor positions throughout the voyage. Adequate back up, such as a second ECDIS unit or up to date Goovernment-approved paper charts—-essential in areas where ECDIS is not fully available—were required.
Captain Yusuf Soomro, a consultant with TMC Marine, pointed out that the main sources of electronic data needed to be supplemented by course recorder, echo sounder, telegraph logger, engine and fire alarm logs, CG recordings, CCTV ashore/on board, GPS and port radar VTS replays with voice recordings.
Following an accident, ship owners should make VDR information fully available to help recover recorded information for investigators—-in line with the Casualty Investigation Code and the requirements of other official agencies.
He regarded recorded electronic data as “better than fading memory and difficult to tamper with and argue against, while enabling a more precise analysis and providing a good time line.”
Captain Soomro outlined a series of case studies involving contact with berth, grounding, damage to a submarine cable and a collision. He summarised the roles of VDR, video, AIS and ECDIS in establishing what happened.
The seminar was chaired by Jeremy Russell QC of Quadrant Chambers. He was introduced by Nick Austin, a partner at Clyde & Co and a member of the LSLC’s Council.
The seminar marked the conclusion of the 2015 seminar programme, organised by the London Shipping Law Centre—Maritime Business Forum. Subjects covered included time charter indemnities, developments in Rule B relief, piracy, charterparties, stowage issues, bills of lading, and speed and consumption issues. The Cadwallader dinner debate in November discussed the prospect of regional regulators wrecking international shipping.
The Centre opens its 2015 programme with a course on mediation advocacy, in sessions in February and March. Full details available from Gerard Matthews, London Shipping Law Centre shipping@shippingLBC.com