The Role of Marine Geo-Information in the Future

Dr. Mathias Jonas
Dr. Mathias Jonas

Published Oct 28, 2019 6:53 PM by Tom Cox

Tom Cox from The Maritime Executive spoke with Dr. Mathias Jonas, Secretary General of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), at the Seabed 2030 Conference in London last week.

It is exciting to hear about the mapping of the ocean’s floor increasing from six to 15 percent in only a few years, a massive increase. What is the IHO’s role in the process?

The IHO has its roots in 1921 that’s when we founded, but our real roots date back to the first project to map the seas and oceans, and that is still part of the name of Seabed2030. If you read the headline it says: “The Nippon Foundation – GEBCO - Seabed 2030 project,” and GEBCO stands for General Bathymetric Charts of the Ocean, that was the first attempt to map the oceans. 

So, that brings us back in 1905. That was the first time a set of seven paper charts were issued. The data basis for these seven charts covering the globe were 32,000 measurement points. That equals more or less to the same as a single ping of one second in a modern multi-beam. So, you can imagine there has been enormous progress made since then.

Do you think 2030 is a realistic target to map the remaining 85 percent? That’s a huge amount of bathymetric data.

I agree it is ambitious, but there are three reasons which make me optimistic: the compelling need to get the oceans mapped for a multitude of societal, scientific and commercial reasons; rapidly emerging new survey technology in hard- and software and the truly international approach of the project to join all capacities – public, commercial, ocean research and citizen science. The most critical areas to achieve the project goals may be both polar water regions.

The IHO has supported the safety of navigation since its inception in 1921, and it has worked through huge changes in navigation - most recently ECDIS and E-Navigation. What are the highlights from your time with the IHO?

I started to engage with IHO issues in 1994. It was this year I took over the test laboratory for ECDIS at the German Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency. I recall very well the long way we went from the first ECDIS certification ever in 1999 until IMO’s full acceptance as mandated navigation system in combination with global coverage of digital data sets in 2018 – now rapidly replacing the use of paper charts at sea. 

E-navigation is not such a revolutionary but a significant evolutionary step towards an unseen level of integration – one could say the full digitization of navigation. IMO pursues it as a top down approach, but this process is rather slow – too slow for the progression speed in technology and the practical needs to handle enormous shipping transport capacity timely and safely. 

In the meantime, a sort of “grass roots” development has started setting up “e-navigation like” local data services and matching applications – the most popular are already in operation in great harbors and special areas like the St. Lawrence Seaway to support pilots with mobile navigation devices.

I observe at the same time that there is a growing number of users of marine geo-information for a huge variety of applications not limited to surface navigation. The first two years of my tenure were dominated by strategic support of these trends: enable IHO technical standardization to absorb any type of marine geo-information beyond classic hydrographic content and build up global alliances to transform data standards into data services for the widest community. 

In order to illustrate this I would like to name two fields of activities: our collaboration with the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities (IALA) which works on data standards for Aids to Navigation and Port Call Messages, both compatible with IHO's Data Modelling Framework S-100, and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission IOC which holds joint parentship of the GEBCO project and consequently Seabed2030 with us. The one and only global data set of seabed topography is the so called GEBCO Grid, recently updated in April this year with all the new coverage you mentioned and to be updated annually from now on.

Similar to the UN, 93 Member States are represented by their hydrographic offices. This remains an aspect. There is always room for improvement. The IHO is one of the oldest intergovernmental organizations facing 100 years of existence in the near future. Traditionally our Member States are coastal states represented by their respective national hydrographic offices. Their national layout deviates, but in general terms one can say that their main remit was and still is sea survey and sea cartography for nautical charting. 

But in the same way, the international request for this processed information enhances to other domains, the hydrographic offices are faced to respond to such extended requests on a national base. Many of them are now transforming to national marine data hubs with expanded scope. IHO does its best to assist this transformation to arrangements subsumed under the term “MSDI – marine special data infrastructure” designed for provision of new types of data services. I foresee that this will transform the mayor subjects of the IHO itself in the mid term.

Can you shed some light on the testing and progress of S101 - the new product specification for the ENC?

MJ - S-101 ENC’s as successor of the known S-57 ENC´s will definitely be the premium product out of the range of S-100 based products. To maintain the same level of safety as current ENC production it needs exhaustive testing before regular introduction. I am optimistic to start the real test phase in collaboration with industry mid of 2020. Seen from the outside the development cycle may appear slow but the definition of such a complex standard is only one side of the coin. The second is the preparedness and the capacity of the ENC producing nations to commence S-101 ENC distribution services in synchronicity and in parallel to an ongoing S-57 ENC provision.

Do you think connected ECDIS is possible and will OEM’s embrace the new IHO S-100 standard?What percentage have embraced?

The recent IHO Council which met only two weeks ago at IHO Headquarters endorsed my proposal of a S-100 roadmap which will eventually lead to significant S-101 ENC coverage in 2024. Coordination with IMO and collaboration with industry will be key to bring it to new ECDIS systems. It will be up to industry then to implement the S-100 mechanics in such a way that users enjoy the maximum benefit in terms of integration of all the streams of standardized marine information, simplified software maintenance as common for land-based systems and protection of data transmissions against cyber threats.

What do you see as the future for ENC? Do you think we will achieve autonomous shipping in our lifetimes? 

ECDIS supported navigation at sea was the cutting-edge technology in mobile geo-information management at the beginning of this century. Smartphone technology has over-passed since, and I experienced it as an excellent analogy to anticipate what is next in our domain. An Italian colleague just proposed to interpret S-100 as the android operating system and the different types of S-XXX data services as the variety of apps. 

Though technically not fully correct – not all S-XXX data sets may have embedded executable code – I fully agree with this analogy. Position fixing and charting is everywhere and nowhere in smartphone apps at the same time: simply embedded in a huge number of applications to facilitate their specific purpose but not gaining specific users’ intervention to run. 

I guess we will see the same integrative approach for seaborne applications. There is still one missing precondition however, and that is availability of payable true broadband communication at sea. For years we've heard many announcements from various players about what it will come. Once this eventually happens it will become a complete game changer.

The presence or absence of broadband communication at sea is the basis for my reply for autonomous shipping as well. I have no objections against the general technical possibility once the communication task is accomplished. However, my question is the economic viability. There are so many underway processes to be maintained unmanned, and navigation is the less complicated one. To ruggedize a vessel so that there is no human intervention in the areas of propulsion, ballasting and cargo seems to me too costly for a full ocean passage. I therefore, see the future in short sea shipping and commuting ferries on rather short distances.

But, being in charge of hydrography, I see our domain mostly affected. Autonomous sensor carriers will help us to survey the 3D areas: dull, dirty and dangerous. Today it needs two persons to operate a survey launch with the limitation to day hours. To say it simply: autonomy offers the move to a regime where one person operates two launches remotely for 24 hours. This is attractive, and will make hydrography the front-runner in autonomous seaborne technologies – I am pretty sure of that.

Thank-you Dr. Jonas.