Electronic Weapons: Paperless Navigation


May 31, 2010: After five years of testing, the U.S. Navy is finally entering the digital age for navigation. Five years ago, the first all digital navigation system was installed, in the USS Cape St. George (a cruiser). Called the Voyage Management System (VMS), this version used 29 CDs containing the 12,000 paper nautical charts that were stored in several large filing cabinets on the Cape St. George. The current version of VMS puts all the electronic charts on one high density DVD, or a portable hard drive.

The navy has been working on VMS since the 1990s, and the first thing they had to do was digitize all their charts, some of which are classified, and many of which are customized for military use. VMS is part of the Smart Ship Integrated Bridge System, which will eventually automate and computerize many of tasks performed to run the ship. VMS was developed from systems used on commercial ships since the 1990s. Several other navies have also made the switch. The electronic charts contain more information than the paper charts, and are much easier to use, and, more importantly, update.

Since the 1990s, space satellites have been surveying the oceans, and providing a flood of data for updating charts. The inability to update charts quickly enough was the main reason the submarine USS San Francisco hit an undersea mountain five years ago. Four years ago, the first submarine got the VMS system installed. If the USS San Francisco had VMS back then, and the electronic charts had been promptly updated (the sea mount it hit was spotted by satellite in 1998 and 2004), the collision would not have happened.

The navy believes that several groundings over the past decade would have been avoided had VMS been installed. Most U.S. Navy ships are now equipped with VMS. The cabinets full of charts are not discarded until Smart Ship computers and terminals are installed throughout the ship, so that others who need to use those charts can access them electronically. With VMS, navigation is much easier, and accurate. The users like it, and every ship will have it within the next three years.


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