Why digital navigation is good for business

Adam Foster
Adam Foster

26 October 2017

The digital revolution is moving with relentless speed, but the commercial maritime sector has been slow to embrace the pace of change. Navigation expert Nautisk believes the early adopters of digital technologies will be those that profit most from the ‘fourth industrial revolution’.

Digital technology is enhancing our lives, whether you like it or not. From our cell phones and apps to online banking, good digital is designed to streamline how we do things. When it’s performance driven, it saves time, money and energy. In a business context, that must be a good thing.

Of course, on the whole digital marks a step change in business efficiency, but across the globe corporations are facing the challenge of embracing the idea of change – and then implementing it. It’s human nature that there is resistance to change, because it means introducing an element of risk, especially when the change involves a move to technologies that are new. Risk ranges from the size of the capital outlay required, or the perceived cost of training, to failures of technology adoptions in the past that echo a warning.

Bill Clinton once said: “The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change”, so how does our sector balance the commercial pressure to trade at a profit with the pressure to bring ourselves into the modern era? Well, in truth it’s possible to achieve both in a way that will derive long-term performance and benefits for any business.

Enabling improvement through technology

Digital technology must be seen as an enabler, not a panacea. A piece of technology will not deliver the desired benefits unless it’s used in the right way, in the right place and by people who know how to use it. The key here is to get the planning right from the outset.

At Nautisk we like to meet face to face with our potential customers. This is not about ‘hard sell’. It’s about reviewing how the customer does things, and where our navigation technologies can fit. Since most of our products are available on subscription, there is no advantage for us to mis-sell a digital solution if it offers no long-term benefit. Our customer loses, and so do we.

That’s why we take service so seriously. We make ourselves available literally 24/7, because it’s important that our products are used in the best way for the customer. So in the planning process if there are desired and defined outcomes for your organisation, the availability and choice of digital technologies becomes similarly defined, eliminating a layer of risk.

Should capital outlay rule out investment?

It’s a broadbrush statement but yes, the capital outlay for certain digital technologies can seem cost prohibitive. It can certainly prove to be an expensive mistake if the technology is wrong for your business and fails to deliver the benefits you hoped for. While an investment in digital technologies is unlikely to be of the scale that would contribute to another Hanjin Shipping collapse, any financial risk in a margin-hit industry like ours must be considered carefully.

An overriding consideration here is the broad range of compliance issues for ship operators that makes a technological investment necessary. ECDIS is a good example of this. SOLAS Regulations mean each vessel requires ECDIS, and they come at a typical cost of between $US10,000 and $US30,000 per vessel. While this is an expense, the benefits of the technology do make some sense. Administration on the bridge is reduced and navigation is enhanced – so it’s a positive step forward in terms of cost and safety. Many technologies can be viewed in a similar way.

Leasing is an option that can eliminate or reduce capital outlay on technologies such as ECDIS. For example, we’re working with SRH Partnership to provide vessels with a state-of-the-art Danelec ECDIS system bundled with our NaviPlanner™ route planning software at a fixed monthly cost. There’s no capital outlay, which reduces risk and makes the investment affordable. Futhermore the subscription enables use of the technology over a defined period of time. When the lease ends a new contract – or new hardware and software – can be put in place, future-proofing the expense so that you achieve long-term benefits. It’s also allowable expense to put against tax in most territories.

Delivering long-term benefit in operation

The key to deriving long-term benefit is how the digital technology performs at the point of use. Whatever technology you invest in – whether it’s connectivity, logistics, navigation, tracking or energy saving – it should deliver a benefit. This could be quantified in many ways, such as cost savings, time efficiencies, reliability, reduced emissions, customer service, safety and more.

At Nautisk our expertise is in navigation, but the range of benefits we consider when developing digital technologies are shared by many of the good quality digital technologies that enhance modern commercial shipping.

For example, digital assets for the most part require connectivity. We have ensured our digital charts and publications can easily be handled via the standard VSAT trunk that most vessels will already have on board, and software like NaviPlanner™ operates on existing hardware running Windows 7 or above eliminating capital outlay. We’ve also developed our own protocol that combats poor data speeds and signal, which can be an issue with satcoms during a voyage. ECTP (Efficient Content Transfer Protocol) reduces file size through data compression and resumes downloads from last drop out to maintain file integrity, and is used across our digital portfolio.

For the shipping company the result of the digital implementation can be many fold. In the case of digital charts and publications, by way of example, there is:

  • a cost saving against shipping of printed charts and publications
  • a time saving because the charts are downloaded in seconds and updated automatically
  • a productivity improvement because bridge officers can work more effectively and therefore focus on other important jobs
  • better budgeting because subscriptions can be managed monthly, and per vessel or per fleet
  • space saving because shelves of literature can be replaced by a tablet such as our NaviTab
  • a CO2 saving compared to air freight of the documents alongside and fewer trees pulped for print, so you help save the planet too!

The benefits really start to stack up when you take a holistic view of any digital investment.

People – the key component in the digital future

One of the buzz words in the shipping media currently is automation. As innovative companies invest in testing remote or self-controlled vessels, it is important to recognise that we are at a very early stage in development of these technologies. Even self-driving cars are in their infancy, and full production is probably years away if it is even insurable.

If we look at the digital landscape today, the tools we need to make ships more efficient are generally enablers for the crew or shore-based staff to improve performance – not necessarily automators of performance. Digital connectivity is, of course, a standalone technology but it is people that will use the received or transmitted data to make better decisions.

Whether you’re embracing tools such as satellite tracking, digital navigation or fuel monitoring, it’s vital that the data can be interpreted properly to guide your decisions. This is typically a training issue – and that in itself can be a longer-term investment, allowing for turnover of staff, promotions and retirements that leave a training need in their wake.

Certain digital technologies allow for this. We all use a variety of apps on our cell phones, and while they do different things few are difficult to use. We’ve worked hard to make our NaviPlanner™ voyage planning tool intuitive like this, and it’s similar to a car satnav that we’re all familiar with. Put in a departure and arrival port and it gives you the route options in a few seconds. Therefore limited training is required to make the most of its many capabilities.

However even with intuitive software you need to ensure that the user is aware of the organisation’s desired outcomes – be it reducing cost, reducing time or reducing risk. NaviPlanner™, for example, provides multiple suggestions for routes, because it’s not always the most direct, least distance route that is appropriate for the voyage. For example, if a route takes the vessel through a zone of high-risk pirate activity then the officer may want to select an alternative route. The NaviPlanner™ system can show pirate activity or other information such as weather warnings, for example, which allow the user to make a more informed choice. This is simply not possible with a printed map – and certainly not in the few seconds it takes software to crunch the available data.

This brings us neatly to big data. It’s not a term that we would have heard of a few years ago, but the digitisation of information has created a vast wealth of data that can be accessed and utilised. Our NaviPlanner™ software uses an array of datasets, including AIS data, combined with machine learning in order to suggest the most reliable routes. This was unthinkable until recently, and while there may be scepticism around how reliable the data sets are, it’s feasible to build algorithms into software that eliminate risk and provide the best possible outcomes. As we have.

We’re shortly launching an initiative where our navigation tools combine with vessel monitoring tools to provide even more powerful decision-making information. The possibilities become endless.

The potential of big data delivered to a range of digital systems on the vessel is therefore huge. And, by the nature of digitisation, it will only get bigger. As we know in our sector, it is already a case of survival of the fittest. This makes it all the more important that digital technology is embraced today if players in our industry are going to be fit for tomorrow.

Kjetil Bentsen is Head of Innovation at navigation specialist, Nautisk.