Future maritime communications

When it comes to the matter of choice of future maritime communications for ships, operators will have three key requirements: It should be sufficient to address needs, it must be reliable and it should be cost effective.

As things stand, the future communication needs for ships and shipowners are still in the process of being determined and often the driving factors will be outside of the owners’ control and dependent on technologies not yet delivered or even conceived. Just three decades ago, few shipowners would have dreamed of the changes that GMDSS – then just starting to be implemented – would bring.

The 1990s may have been the beginning of the internet age but the early hype rarely lived up to expectation and billions of dollars were lost. Even Iridium, now a GMDSS service provider but then just another newcomer in the future maritime communications arena was to go bankrupt along with dozens of new technology companies when the dot.com bubble burst.

Today, the benefits of digitalisation are more accepted and the products on offer generally much more directed at genuine demand for them. Having shelled out on GMDSS systems and later AIS, LRIT and SSAS, shipowners were more aware that regulation was driving digitalisation and they needed to keep up. Not least because future regulation looks set to impact operations far more than the relatively small cost of equipment prices required up to now.

Efficiency, environmental restrictions in certain areas and a potential levy on fuel use are some of the new drivers. Enlightened operators have also taken crew welfare onboard and looked at cost saving measures. As a result, many have adopted services such as performance monitoring and for safety and operational reasons remote maintenance.

As regulators look to control more aspects of ship operation, e-Navigation has become an issue that most feel will soon become mandatory in some form or other. E-Navigation will impose a very high loading on the ship’s data transmission and reception requirements as the concept is based on the interconnection of ships and shore facilities by communication links, including high speed broadband data to ensure safe navigation particularly in coastal and high traffic areas.

New technology such as VDES is mooted to be at the heart of e-navigation because it has the potential to provide many forms of data to ships, such as Maritime Safety Information (MSI), hydrographic and environmental data, piracy and security reporting, updating and monitoring of onboard systems both electronic and mechanical. VDES uses the VHF part of the spectrum.

Ship operators are also keeping a weather eye on the autonomous ship issue.

Assuming there is societal acceptance of uncrewed passenger transports, it is fairly certain that short distance autonomous craft will become a feature in some parts of the world within the next decade. The position with regard to cargo ships is somewhat less certain. From an operator’s point of view, the ability to dispense with some or all of the crew, will be a cost saving but although human error is said to cause more than half of all maritime incidents, there is no counting of the times when catastrophes have been averted or cargoes saved by the timely action of the crew in dealing with a situation not caused by human neglect or intervention.

From a communications point of view, it is hard to determine where the greater communication need might arise. An autonomous ship may need to transmit and receive more data for navigation purposes and equipment monitoring but it will not have any crew related communications.  A manned ship will need crew and company related communications but may not have a need to transmit or receive any other data.

In planning future needs, an owner will first need to decide on a GMDSS provider. Flag states may have a role in this decision but if not, the owner will be free to choose from any provider (currently only Inmarsat and Iridium) approved by the IMO. The choice of GMDSS service provider will also to some extent dictate the choice of the prime communications equipment but it will not restrict the choice of communications service provider(s).

Researching the market of communications service providers is where the most planning and decision making will come in although initially the ship operator needs to consider the degree of digital integration existing in a ship’s systems and how it relates to cyber threats.

Operational technology (OT) is the management and control of ship systems by combinations of hardware and software. The effectiveness of any piece of equipment relies on it being able to activate immediately required and in a consistent known manner. Many shipbuilders are now constructing SMART ships where far more of the controls are automated and networked.

IT on the other hand are technologies for information processing, including software, hardware and future maritime communications technologies. It may be found in monitoring systems where sensors acquire data which is recorded and may be used to analyse performance or indicate appropriate measures for crew to take to optimise performance.

Although they may be called in to install or assist in troubleshooting, IT departments are not usually involved in the purchase of OT systems which is the remit of the superintendents or vessel engineers who may not have sufficient knowledge to evaluate cyber risks. It is, therefore, important to have a dialogue with the IT department to ensure that cyber risks are considered during the OT purchasing process.

In a small sized ship owning or operating organisation, the IT department might also be ignorant of all aspects of cyber risk and the choice then is to employ a specialist consultant or ask class, P&I and communication service providers for some assistance in gauging and preventing cyber threats. Consideration could be giving to segregating systems on board so as to minimise or eliminate some of the risk that arise from poorly protected IT systems.

Planning a future maritime communications strategy is not only about controlling cyber risks but also anticipating future needs and solutions. Ship operators are no better at predicting how communications technology will develop than any other individual but that does not prevent them from discussing the question with a communications service provider. Although they will have their own products and favoured networks, a decent provider will be conversant with the possibilities offered by new satellite networks that are being constructed and by new technologies such as 5G for example. Most will have suitable systems and services that can be tailor made or adapted to suit the specific needs of any shipowner.