Maritime communications – the current position and future development

26 min read

maritime communications

Shipping is frequently described as a conservative industry that is slow to embrace new technologies. In fact, this is not true especially when it comes to the matter of maritime communications. Ships were communicating with the shore via radio from 1899 although initially messages were sent using morse code rather than voice. By the late 1970s, satellite communications were being used by a small number of commercial vessels and many more military ships.

Obviously technological change is only adopted once it has reached a stage where it can meet the unique demands of the maritime industry and in particular prove its reliability and robustness under the harshest of conditions. If shipping has been slower to embrace some aspects of modern technology, it is often because the difficulties and high cost of maritime communications across vast distances has meant that ship operators devised ways of minimising the amount of communications needed for commercial purposes.

Few ship operators or their crews are concerned with the high science and engineering of the satellites themselves, but they do need to understand the fundamentals of satellite communications and the radio spectrum. Starting from the very basics, ship operators and seafarers alike understand one thing and that is far from land at the mercy of wind, waves and weather a ship is constantly moving in three dimensions simultaneously and the satellite or radio antennae is a tenuous link to systems ashore.

All satellites make use of a beam which is a pattern of electromagnetic waves received or transmitted by the satellite. The transmission from a satellite has a defined pattern and the beam can be wide or narrow covering a large or small area on earth. Using a system of varying frequencies and alignment of antennas onboard the satellite, each satellite can have several beams within which all or most of the satellite’s power is concentrated.

Most satellite communication systems are structured so ships are required to share channels with others which is perfectly fine for simple communication needs but highly inefficient when dealing with the large quantities of data that some operators generate. This can be overcome by making use of a very small aperture terminal (VSAT) service.

Subscribers to VSAT services are provided with exclusive or semi-exclusive use of satellite channels for sending and receiving voice and data at broadband speeds (although a VSAT service is not necessarily needed for broadband). Usually, they are charged for this on a monthly fixed fee subscription basis (although there may be limits on the data allowed before extra charges apply) as opposed to the rate per Mbit charged when using basic services. This enables a network to be created that permits the transmission of large quantities of data.

Arguably the modern satellite antenna is the most vital link in the communication chain. Unlike the fixed systems that are used ashore, its ability to articulate in all planes and maintain a link with a satellite under all but the most extreme conditions will be the catalyst for the digitalisation of shipping. The evolution of antennae to its present reliable and robust state has come just as the use of satellite technology on a global scale is set to accelerate rapidly.

Some pioneering spirits in the world of shipping were making use of satellites in the final quarter of the 20th century and some even making use of dedicated VSAT services. But they were few and far between and the choice now opening up as network owners build new constellations of satellites in all three of the earth orbit sectors is becoming bewildering.  

LEO (low earth orbit) MEO (medium earth orbit) and GEO (Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit or more commonly called geostationary) systems all have their pros and cons, and some ship operators make use of services on different systems. Then there are the bands in the spectrum that offer choices and again more factors for users to consider.

Most crew will know the limitations of radio systems and the various frequencies such as UHF and VHF which are in daily use on and around the ship. These are all under 1GHz in frequency and it is above this that the satellite frequencies and bands are found.

Navigators will be aware that X and S bands are used for radar systems but the uses and differences between L, C, Ku and Ka bands have rarely bothered seafarers or shipowners. But this is changing and deciding what communication needs are likely to be will determine which bands and which equipment is necessary.

Safety sets satellite wagon rolling

Shipping embraced the radio age on a totally voluntary basis long before carriage of radio and employment of a radio officer became compulsory on merchant vessels. But critical mass in satellite communications was to come as a result of an IMO safety strategy. GMDSS was conceived at a time when merchant ship casualties were spiking but by the time it became fully operational in 1992, incidents and lives lost were already reducing.

GMDSS can be seen as the dawning of the satellite communications era. The advent of GMDSS saw a major change in the way all maritime communications including commercial messages were handled on ships. It also ensured the demise of the dedicated radio officer. While not all ships were obliged to install satellite systems, many crew and owners of those that did not, recognised that it offered communication by email as an option that did not exist before.

Today GMDSS has moved on from the monopoly conferred on Inmarsat and is soon to implement changes by the first review of the system since it was implemented. As a system, GMDSS mandates only the equipment to be carried and the training of those that need to implement it at sea. Unless a ship is involved in or needs to respond to an incident, the equipment need never be used although it must be maintained and certified at regular intervals.

There are however some later regulations that do require ships to communicate on a regular basis. These are primarily intended to track ship movement either by authorities in the case of LRIT (long range identification and tracking) or by authorities and other ships in the case of AIS (automatic identification system). AIS is only mandated to use radio signals, but the signal can be received by satellites and there are several commercial services that use the data for purposes beyond the navigational aid that AIS was intended to be.

Communication of regulated information is on the increase and already covers to some extent the information for port state authorities that port agents have traditionally supplied and advance notices of arrival for some nations – notably the US – for security purposes.
Although not yet mandated there will likely be more requirements for information and data to be reported. Examples include the IMO and EU emission reporting requirements and conceivably more data on cargo under the impending CII requirement.

Having been obliged to install satellite equipment as part of GMDSS, shipowners soon realised that email was a better method of communication than radiotelegraphy and although with Inmarsat C the transmission or receipt was not instant it was quicker than other methods but could be more expensive.

Keeping maritime communications costs in check

Communication costs are something that shipowners have become expert at keeping in check over the years and superfluous communication was traditionally discouraged other than by letter or telephone when the ship was in port. As the cost of communicating has fallen, many ship operators and managers have embraced the opportunity to communicate more freely and the volume of traffic has definitely increased dramatically and is still accelerating.

Having said that, the volume and method of communication will be determined by the type and age of the vessel and the service it is operating on, and the ship management strategies and procedures of the ship operator and cargo owners.

In the new digital age, pioneering owners are making much more use of software monitoring and services offered by equipment suppliers to oversee and advise on machinery management and maintenance. This is driving a move away from services that charge for maritime communications based on data usage and towards subscription services that come with a data allowance or even unlimited data transfer. Often these services are geared towards a switch to VSAT services.

In the days of radio communications only, personal communication facilities on board for all but senior officers were, to all intents and purposes, non-existent. That has changed in the satellite era but although accessible by many seafarers.

The early years of this century were characterised by maritime communications service providers making all efforts to increase use of their services primarily to increase revenue. One of the methods employed was to promote and facilitate crew communications first by way of provision of an onboard telephone and later by email as mobile phones and tablets became readily available on a global basis.

Most, but not all, owners were relaxed about crew communication provision because the cost did not fall to them to cover but was managed by means of recharging the cost to individual crew members.  Crew communications and connectivity is partially covered in the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention. Although there is no specific mention of provision in the mandatory part of the convention text, there is reference to ‘reasonable access to ship to shore telephone communications and email and Internet facilities where available, with any charges for the use of these services being reasonable in amount’. What constitutes reasonable is debatable but for the crew affordability is still an issue with some suggesting that around a quarter of their wages can be spent on communication costs.

Maritime communication revenue earners 

Passengers are also benefitting from the satellite communication services on ships. In some cases, they were in fact some of the first to do so as cruise vessels equipped with C-band systems could receive entertainment services from a number of specialist providers.

For shipowners some benefits are to be had from fast connections on passenger vessels such as cruise ships and ferries. Here an extra revenue stream can be tapped by allowing passengers to use their own mobile telephones onboard. Both passengers and crew can benefit from streamed entertainment services of which there are an increasing number. Services such as Inmarsat’s Fleet Media allow for latest movies, international films, sports and TV shows to be downloaded on vessels anywhere in the world. This gives access to hundreds of hours of on-demand content that can be watched on a laptop, computer or an iOS or Android smart device via wi-fi or physical network connection.

Another method is by means of picocells connected to the ships communication system a picocell is a small base station installed in accommodation areas of the ship that extends mobile coverage. Connected to a remote gateway it will convert a mobile call into a narrowband IP signal for transmission over the satellite network used by the vessel. The picocells allow mobile phones fitted with appropriate prepaid SIM cards to access the maritime communications be they VSAT or L-Band.

New maritime communications strategies for ship operators

Easier and faster maritime communications coupled with modern sensor technology have opened up a whole range of opportunities for ship operators that is changing the ways ships are operated and maintained.

It takes time for new ideas and concepts to permeate an industry that is in some ways fragmented by trade, region and the resources available to individual owners and operators. Many of the latest ideas will probably not become universal on ships for many years but they are already accepted and employed on tens of thousands of ships. As digitalisation increases, the integration and evolution of ideas is regularly turning up new concepts.

Seafarer training used to be a combination of shore-based theory, onboard practice and lots of book learning whenever and wherever possible if someone wanted to progress to officer or higher rank status. In the digital age, a lot of the shore training is done using simulators and increasingly using computer-based training. Increased communication capacity on board has allowed the CBT to take place on board with students being tested regularly and records of their ability and new skills shared electronically between training provider and employer.

In a recent trend, simulator training is moving to take place at sea while crew are serving on the ship. At a basic level this corresponds to the CBT situation with a single screen and a keyboard being the input devices. Quite clearly it would be impractical to install a full mission simulator on a ship and the ship’s own equipment is not intended for training but more than one training service provider is exploring virtual reality as a training tool for crew members, regarding emergencies that may occur on board.

Performance monitoring is a relatively new development in ship operation that has its origins in the trim optimisation software developed by several companies in the mid-2000s. At that point in time, the ability to transfer large volumes of data ashore was something that most ships did not have so the software systems on the market were aimed at giving crew on board information that could be actioned in real time or used for improving future operations.

Whilst all of the systems have their own unique differences, basically all collect a wide range of real time measurements such as inclination of the ship both fore and aft and transversally, ship speed, engine power and load, fuel use, wind and tide strength and direction, capacity of ballast, fuel and other easily moved stores.

With the data acquired, the software can rapidly calculate all of the possible permutations and present the information for the crew to take any necessary remedial action. Most of the systems can also make recommendations or show the effect of a possible change in one of the parameters. For example, a change in speed, engine load or course direction.

Even as standalone systems on board individual ships, these systems did produce some significant fuel savings but improvements in the software and growing use of maritime communications would mean they could develop into full performance monitoring solutions for the shipowner.

Depending upon the ships systems and equipment suppliers, data can be assimilated from virtually anywhere giving a full picture for the ship and shore office. The information can provide early warning of equipment failure and also identify when a ship may be approaching the limits of performance and consumption limits set out in charter parties.

The online modules that can be integrated into most systems automatically transfer data to shore and can even simultaneously display data from a whole fleet on a large office display so that any ship which is not performing optimally at that moment can be identified. Several of the systems can be programmed to identify operating profiles on regularly used routes that minimise fuel use and modify these based on changing weather and sea state forecasts.

The latest trend in performance monitoring involves its evolution into what is often called an Internet of Things (IoT). This is being enabled by maritime communications services providers actively encouraging the use of third party applications on their platforms. An example is Inmarsat’s Fleet Data solution. This is a bandwidth-inclusive IoT platform that allows ship operators to instantly collect data from onboard sensors, upload the data to a secure cloud-based platform, and interface with applications from third-party application developers.

From helping hands to unmanned ships

Another development of performance monitoring is moving beyond observation to assisting in maintenance. Ships are a complex mix of machinery and equipment systems and although some are unique to ships, many have equivalents on shore. First and foremost among these are the engines, especially medium-speed, four-stroke engines. On ships these can be either propulsion engines or gensets and a similar situation exists onshore where they are used in power generation or in road and rail transport.

For decades it has been common practice in shore situations for the engine maker to be heavily involved in maintenance of their equipment in power stations. This has been taken a step further still because the more robust communication facilities available on shore have allowed equipment to be monitored around the clock from central control stations and the computerised engine control units can be modified remotely to adjust engine running parameters or even to stop an engine if a dangerous situation develops.

These developments are gradually finding their way into the marine sector but restricted maritime communications on many ships combined with the fact that equipment on older vessels may not be suitable for some of the changes that are becoming possible. Almost all engines installed on ships today will be electronically controlled and have an engine control unit and some older engines can be upgraded.

Shipping is not being left behind in other aspects of maintenance and training. Both of the main engine makers (MAN Energy Solutions and Wärtsilä) have embraced VR training and added it to simulator training and hands on training services. This does permit engineers to be trained on products that are not physically present and has potential for use onboard ships as well as in training establishments.

It is however in the field of remote assistance enabled by augmented reality that the greatest potential for onboard use is to be found. Remote monitoring and assistance of equipment was making slow inroads into marine circles in the years before the COVID pandemic but looks to be something that more operators will be willing to participate in. The ability to use 4G cell phone technology in ports has assisted but the availability of more satellite bandwidth can bring the same remote capabilities to vessels at sea well out of range of shore communication networks. AR in particular has the potential to transform maintenance and emergency assistance as ship side user only needs to be a physical presence while the experience and knowledge is provided by the shore side experts.

Thus far, all of the developments mentioned have been about shipping adopting new communications and technology to evolve traditional shipping methods, but there are other agendas in place as well. One that has achieved attention in the last five years or so is the question of remote operation.

 Remote operation is seen by some as a halfway step to autonomous ships but by others it is making use of technology to assist the crew of the vessel in emergencies and by providing back up under other circumstances.

The idea of autonomous ships may have been something discussed in military circles and in boardrooms of commercial equipment suppliers, but it was never really a topic that ship operators themselves had publicly debated prior to 2012 or thereabouts. The matter of fully unmanned autonomous ships is still a matter of debate and while there are some projects in place, the regulatory and commercial desirability is a long way from being decided. Remote control of ships is however now a reality although not yet at a commercial operation level. Several demonstrations of remote operation have taken place since the first by Rolls Royce in 2017.

Projects involving remote control as a prelude to autonomous ship operation are also underway around the globe. One of the most ambitious was to send an autonomous craft across the Atlantic. The Mayflower Autonomous Ship project has its own website ( from where developments can be tracked. The trimaran vessel which is around 30m began its planned voyage in June but was forced to turn back with a mechanical problem two days into the voyage. After repairs it was put back in the water in September, but the planned voyage was postponed until early 2022. With no humans onboard, the research vessel uses IBM’s automation, AI and edge computing technologies to make decisions based on its status, environment and mission.

Help is at hand

The related but less controversial subject of remote assistance is another topic that has evolved over the last decade. The criticisms levelled against shipping after the Costa Concordia incident galvanized some operators to establish better oversight of vessels at sea. Carnival Corporation – the parent of Costa Cruises – has been a pioneer in this respect and has established three Fleet Operation Centers (FOCs) in Hamburg (2016), Seattle (2017) and Miami (2018).

These monitor all aspects of navigational safety, weather and energy management, receiving screen shot data from the bridges and engine rooms every 60 seconds and switching to 15 second feeds if necessary. In addition, alarm status, stability information, and tank status is also transmitted. The information is displayed on a wall mounted screen display comprising several large screens allowing all relevant data and equipment status to be viewed with the need to switch screens as is necessary even on some bridge workstations which only have a single screen.

The centres are manned 24/7 always with experienced mariners on hand. In the event of any safety concerns, the FOC team supports the captain and his crew on the vessel concerned. The FOC also supports the ships with regard to any non-safety-critical situations deviating from planning, such as developing gales or hurricanes which could make route alterations necessary, rescheduled sailings due to the late arrival of embarking passengers, etc.

Assuming the commercial objections can be addressed, at some point it is likely there will be a fusion of the Remote control centres used in the few projects that have taken place and the FOCs. As things stand, there are very few systems on ships that could reliably run for long periods without crew intervention, but autonomous ships feature strongly in some visions of shipping’s future.

Until then there will be a need for crew and with that comes a need for occasional remote assistance of the medical kind. At a very early stage in the marine satellite era in 2001, a Norwegian company called iMed piloted a service with a local shipowner in which a digital camera was used to transmit images and a modified ECG machine could send readings ashore.

Today there are several services that offer a modern telemedicine service for ships but penetration into the commercial ships sector is still a long way behind cruise ship provision. The service providers or maybe enablers come from different backgrounds with some being charitable or subscription medical professionals, others equipment suppliers and in the case or Marlink’s Telemed a communication service provider.

The COVID pandemic has accelerated the use of remote medical assistance on shore and simultaneously highlighted the problems faced by seafarers who in some cases were refused access to shore facilities even though their ship was anchored offshore or in port. As more experience of the success of examination by video link is gained, it is likely that this can be migrated to marine use.

Coupled with greater experience of diagnosing by video, better maritime communications and bandwidth will enable much improved display of injuries and symptoms. Having equipment such as defibrillators onboard will then put seafarers in perhaps a better place even than people ashore who are unlikely to have that available. The cost of equipment and the better bandwidth would certainly be far less than the cost of just one or two unnecessary diversions in the working life of a ship.  

The downside to digital maritime communications

Cyber security has become a necessary fact of life in the computer age especially since connectivity to the internet has become the norm. There are still stand alone computer systems to be found on ships, but these are becoming increasingly scarce and even some systems that were not planned to be linked to the outside world are vulnerable if they are upgraded or designed by way of USB sticks or the like.

The potential for navigation and safety to be jeopardised by attacks whether malicious, criminal in intent or an inadvertent interference with a vital system prompted the IMO in 2017 to recommend ship operators to address the issue in their safety management systems. That recommendation came into effect at the start of 2021. Company SMS policies and procedures should help ensure that cyber security is considered within the overall approach to safety and security risk management.

Effective segregation of systems, based on necessary access and trust levels, is one of the most successful strategies for the prevention of cyber incidents. Effectively segregated networks can significantly impede an attacker’s access to a ship’s systems and is one of the most effective techniques for preventing the spread of malware.

Manufacturers of satellite communication terminals and other communication equipment may provide management interfaces with security control software that are accessible over the network. This is primarily provided in the form of web-based user interfaces. Protection of such interfaces should be considered when assessing the security of a ship’s installation.

The battle against cyber criminals is a never ending one. What works today as protection may not work tomorrow. It is essential to keep abreast of developments and take action as appropriate. For ships it is especially important to ensure that communication service providers are offering up to date protection through their various products.