Where are maritime communications headed?

7 min read

Ship communications, Satellite systems and networks explained

Tortoises and Hares?

The shipping industry is often described as conservative and lagging behind developments in other spheres and perhaps there is some truth in that view. But when it comes to maritime communications, shipping has over the years been an enthusiastic embracer of pioneering technologies.

That said, it has to be admitted that there are both tortoises as well as hares among the shipowning fraternity and while the leaders are happy to invest in new services, there are many for whom anything beyond meeting statutory requirements is an expense that needs to be mulled over carefully.

Statutory maritime communications moved into the satellite era with the advent of GMDSS at the turn of the century. Prior to that there was satellite connectivity on a small number of ships using Inmarsat A L-Band systems for communication and an even smaller number of ships making use of VSAT.

Once most ships were equipped with an Inmarsat C system, the potential for connectivity really came into focus. Shipping had to a large extent missed the dot com bubble of the late 1990s when anything Internet related attracted vast sums of venture capital. By 2001 the bubble was rapidly deflating but there were still entrepreneurs pushing for shipping to make more use of Internet functionality and possibilities.

For the next decade or so, there was a noticeable increase in the amount of data being transmitted between ships and shore. Most of this was commercial traffic, some regulatory – notably due to LRIT effective from 2008 – and a small amount personal traffic originating from the crew and subcontractor personnel onboard offshore oil and gas sector vessels as well as in some cases from passengers on cruise ships.

Rise of the connected ship

Around 2013/14 the increasing use of IT on board ships from electronically controlled engines through to ECDIS and other electronic navigation systems and the potential for advanced remote equipment diagnostics/repair, more crew communication, autonomous ship operation and more led to the phrase ‘the connected ship’ being coined.

Believed to be initially verbalised by Tor E. Svensen, CEO DNV GL – Maritime, the term was soon picked up on and many visions of its meaning and ultimate destination were soon being discussed in the press and at seminars conferences and exhibitions.

Published in June 2015 at the opening of Nor-Shipping and focusing on DNV-GL’s 2012 “Shipping 2020” report, Svensen spoke of “global high-speed internet coverage, increased computing power and Big Data solutions turning the vision of the connected ship into reality”. Svensen expected that the spread of those technologies would enable the shipping industry to intensify its focus on enhancing operational efficiency. “By bringing together and analysing both data from on-board monitoring systems and from external sources, a comprehensive insight is gained of voyage, engine and hull performance”, he said. “Voyage management based on shipboard sensors and AIS data, for example, can help to determine the optimal speed in all conditions and thereby reduce fuel bills.”

He then went on to enumerate some challenges to the idea. While enhanced safety through sensors and automation on board is another advantage of connected ships, the robustness and reliability of software dependent systems has to be assured. He also said that alongside the opportunities new threats are present: “As ships become more connected, they could fall victim to cyberattacks,” he warned. To mitigate risks, Svensen recommended the development of guidelines and standards together with cybersecurity audits to improve systems protection. Read full article here

Svensen admitted that in some respects the 2012 report had shortcomings such as not anticipating the growing use of hybrid power systems or the number of SOx scrubbers that might be installed on ships which was at that time accelerating. He would also admit that the take up of LNG as a fuel for shipping was happening much later than DNV had predicted some years before.

As for the connected ship becoming reality, Svensen had likely not foreseen the rise of LEO satellite networks exemplified by the likes of Starlink and OneWeb or developments such as adding 5G into the communications mix as Inmarsat’s Orchestra plans to do. But that as now a reality and some of the hares among the maritime fraternity are enthusiastically embracing them for both crew connectivity and more mundane commercial uses. As yet, apart from LEO veteran Iridium, official GMDSS recognition of LEO networks is not on the cards.

Massive growth puts spotlight on security and data protection needs

Svensen’s mention of cybersecurity guidelines and standards has though most definitely been picked up on. ISO/IEC 27001 is an internationally recognized standard for information security that is rapidly finding acceptance in the maritime communications sphere. Leading service providers recognise that as the volume of data handled accelerates, and the number of electronic and data connections between organisations multiplies the cyberthreat is also growing exponentially. Add to that the need for some data to be kept confidential and protected from negligent accidental release, the management of maritime communications needs to be at the top of the list of items to be addressed.

According to market analyst Euroconsult in the 2023 release of its annual “Prospects for Maritime Satellite Communications” report, maritime VSAT connectivity and hence data movements is set for an astonishing growth period. It estimates that the launch of maritime Non-Geostationary Orbit (NGSO) services is driving the adoption of VSAT in the sector, with 37,000 VSAT-equipped vessels at the end of 2022, the merchant shipping segment leading with 23,000 ships.

After analysing the initial response to the launch of new NGSO services, Euroconsult forecasts a total of 90,000 VSAT-equipped vessels by 2032, with the associated bandwidth usage to grow twentyfold in 10 years from 65 Gbps in 2022 to 1.3 Tbps, mainly driven by the increased adoption of VSATs influenced by the availability of NGSO services for the maritime market.

Latecomers to be converts

As previously mentioned, usually the take up of new services is down to pioneering owners most of whom are large organisations with large fleets. Initially there may be no driving factor for the tortoises to follow suit but factors will certainly emerge. Very possibly one such factor will be the need to attract crew for their ships.

Smaller operators generally make use of second-hand vessels released by their larger peers when replaced by new ships. Every year the complexity of new ships is increasing, so it will not be long before the pool of seafarers available to the smaller owners are not sufficiently trained to operate the ships that are being acquired. Faced with a need to attract crew familiar with the ships, the owners will need to offer the same lifestyle they have become accustomed to with larger owners. Thus, there will be a need to take up the same connectivity services. To make the most of their investment it is almost certain that the owners will also begin to find commercial uses for the service as well.
There is no shortage of ideas aimed at making ship operation more profitable or efficient. Often it is connectivity that has prevented new ideas from being adopted. Soon that may no longer be an obstacle and only imagination will remain as a limiting factor.

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