Canadian Navy charts paperless course

The Canadian Navy is sailing past other countries’ navies when it comes to the adoption of IT.

That’s because Canada has more ships that use electronic navigation, rather than the traditional paper charting, than

any other navy in the world. So far, the Canadian Navy has more than 50 vessels equipped with electronic chart navigation systems. As well, it has six ships on the East Coast and nine on the west that are entirely paperless.

That puts the Canadian Navy in a leadership position according to John Jacobson, president of Vancouver-based Offshore Systems International Ltd., which makes geo-spatial intelligence software. “They were the first navy to embrace the technology in the mid 1990s when a lot of other nations were just talking about it,” he said. “The U.S. Navy in 1997 announced they were going to go paperless by 2007, and when they made the announcement the Canadians were already equipped, so that shows how far ahead they were. So far, the U.S. hasn’t managed to get itself all the way to being paperless but the Canadians are substantially there.”

As well, he added, Britain’s Royal Navy bought its systems at the end of 2003 and OSI was announced as the winning bidder in 2004.

Jacobson explained that electronic charts work by automatically plotting the position of the ship against the background of a map. It’s not dependent on any one source of information, but instead draws data from about nine different sensors.

“It’s like the thing you get in cars these days with street names on a computer on the dashboard,” he said. “What it does for the warship is it provides it with tools so they can be sure they know where they are and where they’re going.”

The system helps ships avoid the risk of running aground, an issue that has been more of a problem for commercial frigates on the Great Lakes than for the Navy. According to Jacobson, a 1998 study by Transport Canada indicates that implementation of electronic charting reduced the number of marine incidents to about 17 in 1998 from 63 in 1995. Each marine incident costs anywhere from $2 million to $5 million. 

As well, OSI’s technology provides tactical tools for weapons management, complex maneuvering as part of a naval task group and mission planning and execution.

Naval Lieutenant Dan O’Regan, an instructor at the Canadian Forces Operations School, said traditional charting involves taking visual fixes of points of land and transferring them to paper.

In the past, he explained, sailors had to do what is called dead reckoning – figuring out where the ship is by measuring the course and distance sailed from a known point.

“Now with the electronic chart navigation we get a feed from GPS, we will put the ship in its intended position, and then we use other various (sources) that also feed the electronic charts,” he said, such as eco sounders, wind speed gadgets and gyroscopes. “It gives a very accurate and precise indication of where the ship is and where it’s going, in electronic chart display, so it can be on a laptop or on the actual main unit.”

According to O’Regan, some Navy members are embracing the technology more rapidly than others, he added. 

The Navy’s members are being trained to use the paperless charting systems at all its schools across Canada. 

“The old school has always been trained in paper navigation, so whenever you put something new in, especially something as important as the ship’s position in electronic charts, it takes time for people to fully understand the product and to trust in it,” said O’Regan. “There’s a lot of trust you put in it when you’re talking about the safety of a ship and of people, so therefore we had a lot of training, and we are still doing a tremendous amount of training with ships and sailors and navigators. But now once people get accustomed to it and trained on it, they can see the full potential.”

Electronic charting is also a lot cheaper than paper charting, he noted. For example, each paper chart costs between $20 to $30 and there may be up to 300 charts required for any given region. Electronic charts, on the other hand, cost $150-$200.

“So it’s a huge saving in terms of getting the actual supplies,” O’Regan said.

While the technology has thus far been used for naval navigation, OSI’s Jacobson said the company has made the core technology available as a general purpose Web-enabled engine for displaying mapping data for land, air and sea use as well as for tracking and targeting of moving objects such as ships and aircraft. OSI demonstrated the technology recently at the 2005 Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration.

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