So Much For Steering By The Stars

Mariners may soon have the ultimate chart. Researchers at the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institution are testing a computerized navigation system that plots course using electronic "maps" of the ocean and satellite-fed positioning data. The system's designers say it could save time and help avert oil spills and mishaps such as the grounding in early August of the liner Queen Elizabeth II.

Called the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS), it's intended to make paper charts and compass bearings obsolete. The electronic maps can be updated easily with current information on submerged wrecks and storm-created sandbars. Using data from an existing global system that tracks vessels, the ECDIS knows a ship's location within 24 feet. Developed with Intergraph Corp. in Huntsville, Ala., the system will reach market in 1994, after the U.N.'s International Maritime Organization sets specifications. But its $50,000 price may force weekend sailors to stick to a compass.

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