VSAT has driven a fundamental shift in ship connectivity to lower operating costs and improve profitability
Key drivers in industry-wide VSAT adoption are improving business efficiency, modernising working practises, supporting the wellbeing of crew and attracting and retaining quality seafarers.
Satcom Global chief operating officer Alex Stewart thinks VSAT has led to a fundamental shift in ship connectivity and business interaction between vessels and shore.
VSAT has enabled a host of new applications and is helping shipping companies “work in a different way than they could before” to remain competitive and profitable.
“VSAT allows progress in more time-efficient practices and operations,” says Mr Stewart. “It is helping the maritime community view communications as a long-term investment rather than a one-off cost.”
He explains there is desire to exchange information in real-time, while implementing time and cost-efficient processes. “There is an ongoing shift to paperless business, contributing to greater profitability and sustainability for vessels,” says Mr Stewart.
There are demands for operational data exchange from charterers, logistics chains and regulatory bodies. “Shipping companies are committed to keeping up with advancements in technology to futureproof their vessels,” says Mr Stewart.
There are several operational benefits and enabled applications, including real-time business chat between shore and vessel and downloading content, such as training materials and large files.
“Having access to quality and reliable connectivity for business operations remains a primary requirement in the maritime industry,” says Mr Stewart. Part of that is introducing internet of things (IoT) on board ships.
“Having access to quality and reliable connectivity for business operations remains a primary requirement”
“We are seeing more data collection and monitoring, as well as real-time automatic transfer from ship to shore,” Mr Stewart explains. This is useful for identifying onboard issues and monitoring machinery.
Another VSAT application is “the ability to remotely access the vessel IT systems and network from shore,” says Mr Stewart, adding shipmanagers can carry out remote administration of vessels’ computers and software from shore.
“These are all cutting down on requirements for onboard visits for systems maintenance, upgrades and troubleshooting,” says Mr Stewart.
VSAT enables owners and managers to adopt electronic documentation including digital training, record keeping and regulatory compliance.
“We are seeing the benefits of access to video conferencing from sea coming into play”
“We are seeing the benefits of access to video conferencing from sea coming into play improving team management and business relationships,” says Mr Stewart. VSAT also improves ship-port interaction with improvements and efficiencies in docking and loading turnaround in port.
“As vessel operators throughout the maritime industry begin to implement new technology, we will likely see a more fundamental shift in order to remain competitive,” says Mr Stewart. “Not least with direct competitors who are embracing a move to digital technology and exploring potential benefits and efficiencies.”
There are drives to maximise real-time working practices in line with the rest of supply chains. “Vessel operators need to aim to be the best to work with, to create a truly competitive service and product for their customers, and to stay ahead of the rest of the industry,” says Mr Stewart.
To remain competitive, vessel owners increasingly need VSAT packages flexible enough to raise and decrease bandwidth and data allowances in parallel with operational requirements.
Inmarsat Maritime vice president for offshore energy Eric Griffin says this is especially the case for offshore support vessels (OSVs).
“It is important to be able to upscale and downscale bandwidth over the course of the contract period because every requirement is different, and customers have varied connectivity needs,” he explains.
OSVs need flexibile satellite communications because the number of people on board can change during contracts. Vessels hired for offshore work often require subcontractors and charterer personnel on board for contracts including:
- Survey work.
- Servicing drilling rigs.
- Supporting offshore fixed and floating installations.
- Subsea construction.
- Offshore maintenance work.
- Offshore renewables projects.
These personnel require connectivity for operational and social requirements. Some expect access to internet and social media channels and others intend to download media using the vessel's broadband. To accommodate these requirements, owners may need higher bandwidth for weeks or months at a time, says Mr Griffin.
“OSV owners may want to do live video from ROVs and cameras on board, while additional workers may need access to corporate networks,” he says.
“There may be additional monitoring of equipment and the vessel, which all needs increased bandwidth. But, once the project is over, owners may need to downgrade again to basic levels.”
Inmarsat can increase maximum information rates to 10 Mbps over the downlink and 5 Mbps uplink if required through its Fleet Xpress service. This combines connectivity over Ka-band frequencies from the Global Xpress (fifth generation) constellation of geostationary satellites and L-band from FleetBroadband using Inmarsat’s fourth-generation constellation.
When charterers go on board vessels, owners can either incorporate them into the onboard broadband or offer secondary subscriptions to these clients. These are additional to the basic plans owners have in place and provide another level of flexibility.
“This allows charterers to have their own connection through the same terminal and hardware on the vessel,” says Mr Griffin, adding there needs to be flexibility in this secondary service that “can be extended for as long as vessel operators and charterers need them.”
Some OSV owners install a second terminal to mitigate the risk of losing the signal from satellite beam shadows. Inmarsat offers a dual-antenna solution with two Global Xpress terminals linked, allowing a seamless switch between them, managed by the network service device. “Owners can add switches and wifi points, depending on what the vessel needs over the network,” says Mr Griffin.
In addition to adding more terminals, vessel owners should look for redundancy in satellite beams from a VSAT service to prevent lapses in service. This is available if service providers have agreements with different satellite operators and overlapping beams, says ITC Global chief technology officer and vice president of global engineering Sanjay Singam.
“We are leveraging our network to enable shipping operations to be more efficient,” he says. “We want to provide redundancy in the satellite capacity of up to five satellites by investing in infrastructure to be more robust and reliable because information is critical for operations and reporting,” explains Mr Singam.
“We want to provide redundancy in the satellite capacity because information is critical for operations and reporting”
ITC Global, a subsidiary of Panasonic Avionics, provides VSAT from around 300 beams on 45 satellites worldwide, including high-throughput satellites.
Mr Singam says adopting IoT is one of the business-critical applications of VSAT, for applications such as monitoring machinery and deploying safety equipment.
One application is monitoring lifebuoys and rafts. “Home offices know if lifebouys hit the water and can start rescue operations quicker than having to wait for the captain to phone the office,” says Mr Singam.
Shipping companies could use this information to reduce insurance premiums. “If liferafts and buoys have not been deployed this could demonstrate their safety records. Lower insurance can be a significant saving for companies.”
This demonstrates that VSAT business applications can create more value than the costs of investing in this connectivity.
Snapshot CV: Eric Griffin
Eric Griffin has more than 18 years of experience in communications, including seven years with Inmarsat. He worked for Consolidated Communications for seven years prior to becoming manager of engineering sales at Stratos Global from 2007 to 2011. He joined Inmarsat in 2012 and rose through the ranks in enterprise solutions, energy and then in the maritime division. In January 2018 he became vice president of offshore energy.