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AMSA – Navigating in the future

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Nick Lemon, Manager Systems Safety Standards

AMSA – Navigating in the future

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) provides the major aids to navigation (AtoN) around Australia’s 60,000 km coastline.  We have about 480 AtoN at 390 sites, including 62 lighthouses that have heritage significance.  There are, of course, many other AtoN in Australia which are provided by state and territory governments and port authorities. 

A wide variety of AtoN provide spatial awareness and aid ships to navigate safely through our coastal waters, all of which are environmentally sensitive and some have world heritage significance.  These include visual and electronic aids, fixed and floating aids and increasingly, services such as Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) and Under Keel Clearance Management systems.

AMSA plays a leading role working alongside other providers of AtoN so that Australia’s AtoN are harmonized and maintained in accordance with the latest international guidance provided by the France-based International Association of Marine Aids to Navigation and Lighthouse Authorities (IALA).  AMSA, as Australia’s representative at IALA, carries our collective views and inputs to influence the work IALA does to provide up-to-date and contemporary guidance.  Through national working groups, we facilitate the flow of information from IALA back to Australia’s AtoN providers.


In order to make long-term strategic and financial plans, AMSA officers draw together the latest information, research and thinking in an effort to forecast how we need to manage our AtoN networks in the years ahead.  We also do focused annual reviews of our AtoN.  This year, we intend to take a deep dive into the use of the Automatic Identification System (AIS), both as a way to provide information, such as virtual AtoN, but also the collection and use of ship position information to provide AMSA with domain awareness.

Back in 2010, we developed our first forward-looking strategy for our AtoN network – “Navigation Services in Australian Waters 2010-25”.

Nine years on, and given the pace of change in the way ships will receive, transmit, analyse, integrate, display and exchange navigation information, we reviewed and updated the strategy in 2019.  The result is “Navigation Services in Australian Waters—outlook to 2030” [link].  It provides an insight to the provision of navigation services, not just AtoN, in the coming years.  We aim to identify emerging trends and drivers in navigation technology and communications.  We have also tried to describe the anticipated impacts these will have on the maritime industry, and we consider what AMSA’s policy responses should be.


The pace of change is great and we need to be agile and innovative in response to ensure we remain an effective maritime safety regulator. Hence, in 2017, AMSA published “Looking Ahead – AMSA’s operating environment 2017 – 2027”.  We are now in the midst of a significant review and rewrite of this document.  A new version of Looking Ahead will be published later this year.  The new version will explore the key challenges and changes likely to impact us, as well as provide us with opportunities to improve the way we work as a maritime safety regulator and response agency.

Continuing with ‘future thinking’, we are keen to see industry improve its approach to the way navigation is taught and conducted.  Some have already modernized and train people to navigate starting with the principles of electronic navigation, and then melding in how navigators should use manually sourced information, such as visual bearings and radar information, to confirm and verify positioning during navigation.  However, there are some that still start training with traditional paper chart techniques and then ‘bolt on’ training in the use of ECDIS, and this we believe needs to be phased out.  To navigate safely with ECDIS requires a ground-up approach, firmly rooted in electronic navigation techniques.

This then raises the question about what should be used as a backup for ECDIS.  Paper chart navigation is a very different form of navigation.  It is becoming unreasonable to expect ship’s officers to be able to switch from ECDIS to using paper charts quickly and safely.  An ECDIS failure in difficult circumstances, such as at night, in bad weather or in a busy and challenging waterway when paper charts are the backup would be difficult to manage at best and could result in a serious accident at worst.  It is far preferable that an independent, ready-to-go ECDIS is available that does not require the navigator to do vastly different things in order to continue navigating safely.  Some may have concerns about this quantum change, but the facts are that as the level of digitalization on board, technical automation and complexity increases, operations adapt to take up the efficiencies that can be gained.  The outworking of this means that reverting to manual navigation techniques is increasingly neither feasible nor realistic.

So, what are some key messages for the marine electronics industry?

  1. Operators of AtoN networks are looking for smarter and more efficient AtoN as they strive to ensure their AtoN networks are meeting the needs of seafarers for spatial awareness and position verification.
  2. Shipboard navigation equipment needs to be reliable and resilient. If failure occurs (it is not realistic to expect it won’t), systems should be designed so that their performance degrades in ways that are clear to the operator.
  3. Duplication, or very similar electronic systems, should be the only form of backup arrangement.
  4. Manufacturers should use Software Quality Assurance and Human Centred Design as described in the IMO’s guidance document Software Quality Assurance and Human-Centre Design (MSC.1/Circ.1512) as they balance the user’s need for standardization with innovations such as the greater integration of equipment and navigation systems as a service.



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