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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

Shipping tackles IT, cyber and communications challenges

Wed 11 Apr 2018 by Martyn Wingrove

Shipping tackles IT, cyber and communications challenges
Militos tanker is operated by Andriaki Shipping

Managers from Navios Group and Andriaki Shipping explain their IT challenges, issues and solutions for improve crew welfare and remote software management

Greek shipowners have tackled challenges in adopting digitalisation while adapting ship communications to enable remote IT management and improve crew welfare and cyber security.

Navios Group IT director Katerina Raptaki told Marine Electronics & Communications that advances in digitalisation technology had opened new opportunities to improve operating profits but shipping companies need to enhance their cyber security.

Shipmanagement is based on experience and intuition of operators but there is also great importance in data analytics and maintaining onboard IT systems. “Digital technology rules everything and data is generated by almost every system on board,” said Ms Raptaki.

Collecting the correct data and using data analytics can lead to shipping companies becoming more competitive, efficient and safe for seafarers. “Charter rates during the last six years have dropped and shipping companies are searching for new ways of improving margins and making extra profits,” she said, adding that “without deep knowledge of the exact figures, this is not possible.”

Navios is using digitalisation and data analytics for reducing fuel costs and improving voyage planning and on board machinery maintenance. “Even the slightest deviations on a vessel’s route can make a huge difference in bunkers consumption and hull fatigue,” Ms Raptaki explained. “Modern systems used in bunkering operations can result to tremendous savings through the accuracy in bunker supply and invoicing.”

With a fleet of more than 200 ships, Navios uses performance and condition data from its ships’ main engines and auxiliary systems to prevent failures. “Use of preventive digital technologies in planned maintenance systems can save money from reducing the frequency of unneeded maintenance of non-critical systems,” said Ms Raptaki.

Another development for this Greece-headquartered shipmanager is the deployment of Inmarsat’s Fleet Xpress hybrid VSAT system across the fleet. This involves Ka-band VSAT with L-band terminals for back-up. These systems “provide seamless connectivity at a fixed monthly rate, so that the managing companies can dedicate a large amount of bandwidth to their crew members,” said Ms Raptaki.

Providing "effective internet use, not only at reasonable prices but also at acceptable speeds, so that seafarers can use it also for fast browsing, streaming and entertainment is a challenge,” she said.

“Our IT operators log on remotely and perform all installations, updates, troubleshooting and even resolve security issues, without the need of physical attendance”

Navios started deploying Fleet Xpress in 2017 on board tankers that it manages. This year, it is extending this to container ships and bulk carriers in its fleet. Ms Raptaki said Fleet Xpress enables remote ICT operations without any intervention by the crew. “Our IT operators log on remotely and perform all installations, updates, troubleshooting and even resolve security issues, without the need of physical attendance,” she explained.

Having access to faster internet, messaging and email services is a boost to crew morale. They also help Navios exceed requirements of the ILO Maritime Labour Convention, which requires shipping companies to provide communications facilities to seafarers on board their ships.

Navios is also deploying better broadband communications to help retain its well trained and competent seafarers, said Ms Raptaki. “From a practical aspect, a happy crew means better performance and a more relaxed personality,” she said, along with “higher retention rate and a more professional and personalised approach to the company policies.” She added that seafarers “tend to consider the company as family and give their utmost potential and capacity” if they have internet access for social media and remaining in contact with friends ashore.

Cyber threats and security issues

However, internet access and digitalisation come with security challenges that shipping companies need to overcome. Ms Raptaki thinks that most of the large shipping companies are aware of the importance of effectively dealing with cyber threats. This will be an important topic of discussion at management level for years.

“However, given the complexity and diversity of the IT systems on board vessels, this is not always easy to deploy,” she said. Some of the issues in deploying cyber security across fleets include variations in the IT, bridge and automation systems on board ships and the minimum amount of training that seafarers have been given on these systems and on cyber security.

Furthermore, the lack of immediate local support “sometimes results in weak controls and loose policies to avoid frequent blocking of IT operations,” said Ms Raptaki as she sees these weak controls and loose policies as blockages to cyber security.

“A vessel’s IT environment is not the ideal field for deploying very strict cyber security solutions”

“A vessel’s IT environment is not the ideal field for deploying very strict cyber security solutions,” she said. For this reason, “emphasis is given to the data availability by ensuring that frequent back-ups will be intact in case of a cyber attack.”

It is also important that shipping companies back-up data for critical operations, such as vessel navigation and safety systems, “in case some or all of the vessels ICT systems become unavailable.”

Regular risk assessments are also required to “ensure that any vessel operation that strongly depends on IT has well defined and assessed IT risks and that remediating actions are also well defined and frequently tested,” said Ms Raptaki.

Andriaki Shipping IT manager Dimitris Makris sees cyber security and software as holding the keys to improving seafarers’ working lives at sea. He told Marine Electronics & Communications that the quality of maritime and shipping software is a “key factor and differentiator” for those working on board Andriaki’s ships.

“Our need to control operating costs, the growing complexity of shipping operations and the constant inflow of data require the use of flexible and efficient software,” he explained. Efficient software is also required for shipping companies and seafarers to adapt to “major or minor technological changes and regulatory frameworks.”

There are IT challenges that seafarers face in their daily operations, such as communications between ships and shore and complexity of onboard computer systems, said Mr Makris. Shore-based IT managers also have issues to overcome, including shore-to-ship communications and “technical difficulties to providing remote technical assistance”.

There are also non-IT challenges such as complexity of seafarer work, time zone differences between shore bases and ships, differences in culture, language and religion. “This all makes up a highly demanding business environment,” said Mr Makris. 

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