The great enabler

A fast and reliable data connection between vessel and shore will transform the way operators run their business, writes Jan Kragh Michelsen from Cobham SATCOM.

Advances in information and communications technology offer substantial opportunities for the shipping industry and the transformation has only just begun. Perhaps this is why, despite freight rates coming under pressure due to fleet overcapacity and sluggish growth in international trade, the number of ships deploying VSAT broadband on board has continued to increase over the last five years.

This enthusiasm would not manifest unless there were quantifiable economic benefits to going down the digital road. Dramatic improvements in the performance, reliability and usability of satellite communications at sea – the culmination of major investments by satellite operators and sustained innovation by terminal manufacturers – can also take some of the credit. It would be remiss not to also mention a wider shift to a digitally-enabled economy.

Antenna advances

The performance and capacity of satellite communication services now available to ships would be considered unfeasible five years ago, and probably impossible as recently as ten years ago from both technological and economic perspective. Yet, thanks to a new generation of high-throughput satellites and the enabling antennas onboard ship, vessels now have access to link speeds measured in the tens of megabits per second.

Successive satellite generations have demanded comparable developments in the capability of antennas on ships. A plethora of antenna systems were created to function with C-band and Ku-band VSAT. The former, while highly reliable and weather resistant, were characterised by bulky, unstandardised and costly installations. Except in some niche sectors, these have gradually been superseded by smaller, more cost-effective Ku-band hardware.

The advent of High Throughput Satellites (HTS) operating on the even higher Ka-band frequency means antennas can be smaller and lighter still. To ensure maximum coverage and redundancy, Ka-band systems normally come paired with a back-up L-band antenna, indicative of the fact that it is simply no longer acceptable for vessels to go offline. (This realization has spurred some manufacturers, including Cobham SATCOM, to revisit and reevaluate the potential of terrestrial radio or blended satellite-radio solutions as a further resiliency option).

The drive for data

In our experience, to date the major driver for connectivity at sea has been crew welfare. At a time when it is difficult to recruit and, more importantly, retain competent crew, vessel owners and operators see access to email and the web as a helpful bargaining chip. Moreover, it is widely believed that a happier crew are more productive.

However, the pendulum has recently been swinging in favour of operational efficiency as a driver for change. Owners and operators are increasingly looking to data to gain an edge over their competitors in tough trading conditions. A reliable satellite connection can have a transformative effect both on day-to-day operations and at a strategic level, and I believe it is a catalyst for reducing the underlying cost base.

It makes little financial sense to duplicate IT infrastructure on every ship in a fleet if a single centralised system on shore can fulfil this function. Condition-based monitoring of equipment such as engines and thrusters to help optimise performance and schedule maintenance in a proactive manner is an obvious candidate. Transmitting some or all of this data ashore allows shore-based experts to keep an eye out for anomalies warning of trouble ahead and to run more rigorous mathematical analyses than would be possible at sea. There’s no reason it cannot be widened to include other major energy consumers or even mission-critical hardware such as dynamic positioning on an offshore support vessel.

As the adage goes: you cannot manage what you cannot measure. The stream of readings also provides the raw data for carrying out trend analysis, necessary for subtler optimisations aimed at improving fuel efficiency, as well as gauging the performance of an individual vessel against others in the fleet.

Expect disruption

In all this, electronic communication and data are the enabler in the process rather than an end in itself. Smarter, more connected operations will likely pave the way for more radical technological changes down the line. On land, we see creeping automation, as industry adopts increasingly sophisticated robotic systems to carry out jobs until now done by people.

The prospect of a fully autonomous ship has also been suggested as logical end-point of this fervour for automation. The idea has stirred considerable debate within industry circles, with views on its feasibility polarised. Depending on who you ask, either it will arrive tomorrow, or never. The idea however is being taken seriously. Resilient, effective communication channels to shore would be indispensable if/when such vessels set sail.

Shipping could also be in the cross-hairs of a new breed of digital entrepreneurs determined to disrupt established business models and practices. After witnessing what AirBnB is doing to the hotel business and Uber is doing to the ride-hailing business, such a prospect may be unsettling, because a common trait among such high-profile market disruptors has been their aversion for owning assets as they scale-up data.

There are countless start-ups looking for a route to break into the maritime business to make their millions. Most are focusing on finding a way to flatten the tangle of relationships between freight-forwarders, charterers and other intermediaries.

Major e-commerce players are thinking along similar lines. Last year web retailer Amazon’s China arm registered as an ocean freight forwarder, in a bid to take more control over shipping products from Chinese factories to U.S. shoppers. E-commerce giant Alibaba has announced a string of partnerships with major shipping lines so that customers can reserve space on ocean vessels online, thereby cutting out freight forwarding middlemen and opening pathways to global markets.

Whether or not such moves mark a fundamental shift, they send a clear signal to the maritime business that it is not insulated from the digital revolution. Instead of fearing it, the industry should embrace it, be prepared and seize the opportunities it offers.

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