At a recent Riviera roundtable debate, chief executives, commercial and information officers tackled the key communications challenges faced by OSV owners
During a thought-provoking roundtable debate in February 2019, communications and IT directors from some of the leading OSV operators discussed how internet-of-things (IoT) technology, more advanced communications and digitalisation will shape the OSV sector. This roundtable was hosted by Inmarsat and Riviera Maritime Media at the Annual Offshore Support Journal Conference, Awards & Exhibition, in London.
OSV owners are bringing vessels out of lay-up to cater for rising demand among offshore drilling and maintenance operations. Owners are fitting more sensors on their vessels to obtain operational data that can be transferred to shore quickly to improve performance monitoring and decision making.
Hornbeck Offshore Services chief operating officer Carl Annessa explained why data analysis should be conducted on vessels. “We are looking at mechanisms to trend our data on the ship and report relevant data – I need information that I can act upon,” he said.
This information needs to be sent through a telemetry system that is reliable and secure so managers can spot the anomalies. “When we see data that is out of the trend, then we need to take action,” said Mr Annessa. He added that applications could analyse the data and notify managers when there are changes.
Topaz Energy and Marine chief information officer Kris Vedat explained that IoT was an enabler for condition-based maintenance. “We have IoT projects running, one of them is live lube oil sampling,” said Mr Vedat. Topaz is also monitoring fuel consumption on its fleet of OSVs from one centre.
“If there is a fleet of vessels of a similar class, then operators can analyse vessel data on one platform and can identify patterns and see trends,” he said.
“Operators can analyse vessel data on one platform and can identify patterns and see trends” - Kris Vedat
Topaz chief operating officer Martin Helwig noted that data should be stored onshore, where analytics can drive decisions on board vessels. “There is a huge commercial upside in IoT,” he said. Once data is ashore, Topaz uses algorithms in its analysis and then sends back information to vessels.
“Analytics ashore has to drive the decisions on board the vessels,” Mr Helwig continued. “Crew need to be decision makers; they should not be monitoring great amounts of data. Crew should stay alert and act according to the information.”
He added that computers with artificial intelligence (AI) can highlight exceptions in the data to shore managers. “If we see the same alert from five different ships, then that is the time for more robust analysis,” said Mr Helwig.
It is a viewpoint that Marine Technologies Norway managing director Sveinung Tollefsen agreed with. Mr Tollefsen, who supports communications and information technology for the Edison Chouest OSV fleet, expects AI will identify issues if computers are fed large data sets and learn how to set alarm points. “Automating processes will enable the systems to learn themselves,” he said. “The more data that can be put in, the better those things get.”
“Automating processes will enable the systems to learn themselves” - Sveinung Tollefsen
Seacor Marine Holdings chief executive John Gellert also highlighted that a key benefit of IoT and connectivity would be the ability to reduce the number of dynamic positioning (DP) operators on vessels. “By building a strong enough IoT, owners can make a safety case and be safer with fewer people on on board,” he said, adding that “most accidents are caused by human error”.
Challenges and barriers
Operational challenges specific to offshore vessels created potential obstacles to adopting IoT. Seacor Marine Holdings managing director in the Middle East Anthony Weller said passenger vessels and liftboats need bandwidth of up to 100 Mbps, but this can be obstructed by structures.
“On a vessel, the bottleneck is the radome. If we want reliability we need to have two radomes and that doubles the costs,” said Mr Weller. He said one solution is to launch more satellites to provide more choice of beams.
“If we want reliability we need to have two radomes and that doubles the costs” - Anthony Weller
Mr Tollefsen said classification societies can also be barriers to IoT adoption. “Class societies need to be adaptive, so we use IoT to be more efficient. Class has to accept how operators adopt IoT,” he said.
Mr Helwig identified the industry mindset as a barrier to IoT adoption. “We are missing a more agnostic view on this,” he said. Noting that vendors need to change their operations, he continued “Engine manufacturers are willing to do analysis on data for their own engines, but not across other machinery.” To Mr Helwig, value is created when data is shared. “What becomes proprietary is how you use the data, the analysis and the algorithms that are built in,” he said.
“What becomes proprietary is how you use the data, the analysis and the algorithms that are built in” - Martin Helwig
On this subject, Mr Vedat noted that partnerships may be a better business model. “The mindset in our industry from operators, engine manufacturers and from class societies has to change,” he said. Indeed, there are indications that class societies have listened to similar arguments.
“ABS is good at this. It has agreed for us to take our drydocking cycle from two to five years,” said Mr Vedat. “Now it is a question of convincing the flag states.” Topaz and ABS are jointly transitioning vessel class renewals from a time-based model towards a condition-based one.
Reliability of connectivity
Mr Annessa highlighted the overriding significance of continuous connectivity. “Antennas and switches are getting better and more reliable, but outages are still a problem and are always inconvenient,” he said.
Outages become a greater issue on vessels that rely on connectivity for data flow and crew welfare. “The more reliant you get on having communications, the more you care about it,” he said. “Pipe availability becomes important. We need to have reliability to make the real utility of any data management system useful to us.”
“There is less risk if operators do appropriate switch protection and have defensive firewalls on networks” - Carl Annessa
This connectivity also needs to be secured against cyber threats. “There is less risk if operators do appropriate switch protection and have defensive firewalls on networks,” explained Mr Annessa, before contending that vendors can be a weak link.
“We get worried about spurious cyber coming in through the satellite communications system and some data applications that may have an open pipe,” Mr Annessa said. “Hopefully, it is one-way traffic outbound; but there have been cases where [malware] tries crawling back the other way through some of these applications and has gotten into the ships.”
OSV owners have varying bandwidth needs for vessels, often depending on their workload, operations and number of people on board. Mr Annessa said vessels could operate on bandwidth of 256 kbps on the uplink and downlink for crew phone calls and emails. “But if there are 100 people on board and they want to be on YouTube at the same time, that is not going to work.”
Mr Annessa said the ability to scale bandwidth delivery up and down is beneficial for OSVs with varying onboard passengers. “We negotiate with clients on how much bandwidth they want to pay for and then consider what our hardware and network will allow,” he said. He said vessels can handle 2 Mbps, but demand may rise to 4 Mbps.
“We need more satellites, there is never enough bandwidth,” said Mr Annessa. “Clients want reports out and want to do live streaming. Even with compression technology they need more pipe.”
He added that this area of negotiation with clients can be a barrier. “Service partners are happy to turn it up, but we are contracted to a certain speed and it may take a week of negotiations with the client,” Mr Annessa said. “In the meantime, all their people and ours are acting like their hair is on fire, asking ‘what is the matter with the connectivity here?’”
Topaz vessels have, on average, 3 Mbps on the downlink, said Mr Vedat. This can be boosted to 10 Mbps if the vessel’s job requires it. “We split that between client and ship networks,” he said. “We always ensure there is sufficient bandwidth for business operations and for separate networks for our clients. We have the facilities on board to tailor the bandwidth specifically for the client.”
Seacor’s Mr Gellert agreed that OSVs with large passenger manifests need higher bandwidths than those with a crew of eight on board and that this requires satellite operators to be flexible in capacity delivery. “When we just have the crew, bandwidth is going to be 512 kbps, but on the crew transfer vessels we need up to 3 Mbps so passengers can download more data,” he said.
“On crew transfer vessels we need up to 3 Mbps so passengers can download more data” - John Gellert
Data packages can go up to 80 GB or 160 GB, but then the connectivity may slow because of fair-use policies. “Then we get complaints from the passengers because everyone is on YouTube and social media,” said Mr Gellert. “Flexibility and cost are always issues.”
The adoption of IoT on vessels is also being hampered by a lack of industry standards in data collection and analysis, according to Mr Gellert. “There are marine standards that exist, but they are not being followed and that is the problem.”
During the debate, Inmarsat Maritime director of business development Alberto Perez introduced results from research in the future adoption of IoT in maritime sectors, which included interviews with 20 OSV operators. Researchers found that OSV operators plan to spend, on average, US$3M in the next three years on IoT. Around 60% of respondents told Inmarsat that transmitting the data from vessel to shore was a key challenge to overcome.
“To fix this we just launched Fleet Data as a service for IoT platforms that allow operators to send data using our secondary bandwidth so it does not interfere with vessel primary connectivity,” said Mr Perez. Data can be sent to a cloud-based portal for third-party vendors to access and for data analytics and diagnostics.
“Operators need to transfer the data into a common platform” - Alberto Perez
He thinks agnostic systems are a future route for IoT. “Operators need to transfer the data into a common platform,” he said and Inmarsat is in a strong position to be that agnostic platform partner. “We probably have the biggest footprint on ships, so we should be seen as agnostic,” said Mr Perez.
Inmarsat Maritime vice president for offshore energy Eric Griffin thinks real-time information, mobility applications and portable technologies will change how work is carried out offshore.
Digitalisation technology on board vessels is facilitating “condition monitoring for more effective maintenance and inspection regimes dictated by real-time data”. This enables owners to replace planned maintenance with preventative maintenance “driven by early monitoring of sensor data to significantly reduce downtime”.
Mr Perez believes shipowners should own data from their own vessels and fleet. With Fleet Data they can upload data to a cloud-based platform and then decide which companies can access this for analysis.
- Moderator: Riviera Maritime Media communications editor Martyn Wingrove
- Hornbeck Offshore Services chief operating officer Carl Annessa
- Topaz Energy and Marine chief information officer Kris Vedat
- Topaz Energy and Marine chief operating officer Martin Helwig
- Marine Technologies Norway managing director Sveinung Tollefsen
- Seacor Marine Holdings chief executive John Gellert
- Seacor Marine Holdings managing director Anthony Weller
- Inmarsat Maritime vice president for offshore energy Eric Griffin
- Inmarsat Maritime director of business development Alberto Perez
- OSV operators want to analyse data on vessels and send data trends ashore for analysis.
- Fleet managers can use IoT to identify patterns and trends on multiple vessels.
- IoT could reduce the number of crew required on vessels.
- Communications hardware and connectivity rates could be IoT barriers.
- The industry mindset needs to change to facilitate partnerships and data sharing.
- Communications outages remain an issue, but reliability is improving.
- Data pipes must be reliable and cyber secure.
- Dual-antenna solutions provide reliability and security.
- Crew video streaming needs to be controlled.
- Operational video streaming benefits security and subsea intervention monitoring.
- Latency can be an issue for remote control.
- An agnostic data platform is required.
- Ownership of vessel data and fleet information should remain with shipowners.
Control crew connectivity
OSV owners need to control onboard connectivity among crew to prevent high usage and prioritise operational requirements. For example, Seacor Marine Holdings tries to ban video streaming, said Seacor chief executive John Gellert. “Streaming is a huge consumer of data and bandwidth; it is ridiculous. Everyone wants to send video to social media applications, so we try to take off the streaming sites.”
Seacor’s Anthony Weller acknowledged that masters on board vessels can identify IP sources of streaming and can speak to these offenders. “Across the fleet, we selectively cut out certain websites and this can be centrally monitored.” He noted that crew and passengers are advised to download films onshore on to their devices to view when on board, but not to attempt that on the vessels to optimise bandwidth use.
Latency affects remote ROV operations
OSV operations can be severely impacted by latency, the delay in data and voice transmissions related to the distance radio waves need to travel between the ship, satellite, ground station and shore base, then return the other way.
Marine Technologies Norway managing director Sveinung Tollefsen said latency could be a barrier to real-time data applications. “[Latency] is crucial for remote operations,” he said, explaining that driving an ROV over VSAT is difficult at the best of times, and made far more complex by latency delays on the commands. Latency can also affect monitoring ROV operations, although engineers do view video from the seabed.
Multiple antennas prevent satellite shadows
Satellite coverage availability can significantly impede operations, especially for OSVs operating in West Africa, where there are gaps in Ku-band beam coverage. This issue has the most impact on connectivity if vessels are operating close to drilling rigs and platforms, which can block the line-of-sight to satellites.
To resolve the problem, some operators are installing multiple antennas, as Seacor Marine Holdings managing director Anthony Weller explained. “We installed a second antenna to make sure we were never in the shadow of a mast.” At the time, the vessel was operating off Nigeria, where there are piracy threats; when shadows interrupt communications, this can trigger a security alarm at the client’s headquarters.
Seacor’s flotels and construction vessels have at least two VSAT antennas on board. “It has become such an essential part of our business, so, the reliability warrants redundancy,” said Mr Weller.
Some clients will even bring their own antennas on board, according to Hornbeck Offshore Services chief operating officer Carl Annessa. “Majors will bring their own systems for their primary business and will then rely on the ship’s system as a fall-back and for their crew communications,” he explained.
Topaz tries to limit the amount of communications equipment that clients take on board because of the risk of interference with vessel VSAT. “The more communications devices there are, the greater the interference becomes,” said Topaz Energy and Marine chief information officer Kris Vedat. “We have hardware on board that is scalable to accommodate client requirements. We had client equipment on board causing interference to our core systems, which is problematic.”