MSC 99 brings big changes to GMDSS

Peter Andersen

Peter Andersen · 20 September 2018


With the introduction of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) in 1992, Inmarsat’s already prominent role in maritime safety expanded significantly. Inmarsat C became a key element of GMDSS and Inmarsat has continued to deliver the global satellite services that GMDSS has depended on ever since. Based on a geostationary constellation, Inmarsat C has made messaging, distress, and safety services available for all seafarers.

Prior to GMDSS, the Cospas-Sarsat constellation provided distress and location services based on Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) terminals. This continues under GMDSS and is still a key element of alerting and locating. Cospas-Sarsat uses a combination of geostationary and orbiting satellites which also covers the arctic regions, and by that provides full global alerting and position indicating capabilities.

New developments

GMDSS has delivered on its aim to improve maritime safety, so it has understandably been slow to change. Some developments have taken place, but these have mostly been focused on technology for users, such as improved satellite terminals and radio functionality. Cobham SATCOM introduced a new network approach for its SAILOR System 6000 GMDSS equipment in 2010, using touch screen based consoles for operation and maintenance of the connected systems, which include both SAILOR Inmarsat C and radio terminals. Later developments included further integration and application based HMI (Human Machine Interface) for the SAILOR AIS, Navtex and GNSS as well as addition of a 7” touch control panel. 2018 however, has seen the biggest shake up of GMDSS so far.

In May at the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Maritime Safety Committee (MSC) conference (MSC99), the MSC agreed to recognise that the Iridium network meets all the criteria to provide mobile satellite services for GMDSS, and to adopt the “Statement of Recognition” proposed by the United States as a Committee Resolution. With Inmarsat currently the only approved satellite provider for GMDSS, this move could position the Iridium network as the first alternative satellite component as early as 2020.

At the same time, MSC formally approved Inmarsat’s ‘Fleet Safety’ solution as a new service to for GMDSS in the EMEA region, giving ship owners and operators the ability to combine maritime safety and broadband data services in a single Inmarsat FleetBroadband or Fleet One terminal. Tens of thousands of vessels in the region approved by IMO are already equipped with SAILOR FleetBroadband or Fleet One terminals, and migration to use them on GMDSS is expected to be straightforward.

Also, during MSC99, the Chinese Beidou satellite operator filed its application for starting the process of being approved as a GMDSS service provider, indicating that within approx. 6 years another new GMDSS service can be available for the seafarers.

On board systems

The activity at MSC99 will bring significant changes to GMDSS in the coming years. With Iridium being accepted as a GMDSS provider a new era will start as early as 2020. Ship owners will have more choice; they can choose to base their GMDSS solution on either Inmarsat or Iridium, or a combination of the two.

The Inmarsat FleetBroadband GMDSS service has the potential to leverage existing equipment on board for GMDSS with the possibility of compliance through software upgrades. However it is expected that there will be significant demand for new Iridium or Inmarsat solutions that make the most of the flexibility coming to GMDSS.

SAILOR Inmarsat C terminals have been and continue to be central to a turnkey solution for sea area A3 – the most common used by internationally trading ships – from Cobham SATCOM. Over the years the terminal has been further developed, but the key functionalities are still the same; distress alerting, distress communication, and reception of Maritime Safety Information (MSI).

As a committed provider of full GMDSS solutions for all sea areas, Cobham SATCOM has already started a new GMDSS technology roadmap to ensure that new SAILOR solutions will be developed and approved in time to be available at the introduction of both the Inmarsat Fleet safety service and the Iridium GMDSS service.

Based on the integral user friendliness focus of the existing SAILOR products, the safety related HMI will be based on uniform terminology and structures, regardless of the satellite service being used. This has the important advantage of retaining familiarity for when seafarers move to a ship with a different GMDSS service.

Changing definitions

There are further changes coming, with a modernised GMDSS expected to be implemented in 2024 including a new definition for sea area A3. Today Sea area A3 is defined as the area covered by Inmarsat, where the definition in the new GMDSS will be the area covered by the recognised satellite operator used by the vessel in question. With this change an A3 approved vessel using the Iridium GMDSS constellation will be allowed to operate truly global, including polar waters.

While Iridium’s entry to GMDSS is a welcome development, there are still many questions on what will change in the market after 2020. Inmarsat C fulfils the GMDSS criteria already so it’s likely that existing fleets will continue with the same equipment and services. Ship owners may not be keen to remove Inmarsat C terminals to run GMDSS through their existing FleetBroadband or Iridium terminals as they are generally happy with the existing segregation between safety communications and operational/crew communications.

For newbuilds however, the prospect of having a choice between Inmarsat C, FleetBroadband or Iridium, and not needing to install a GMDSS specific antenna is more inviting. As digital transformation continues to drive operational efficiencies, many new builds are looking for integrated multi-band communication solutions that guarantee availability of connectivity globally. VSAT is the primary enabler but L-band is normally integrated as a secondary channel, so the majority of newbuilds will continue to come with Iridium/FleetBroadband terminals. Using these also for GMDSS could introduce some significant cost savings.

The maritime technology sector must closely follow the development of new and enhanced distress and safety services for seafarers as communication, be it voice or data can, and does save lives. Regardless of the market demands when the first GMDSS changes come in 2020, as a GMDSS specialist Cobham SATCOM will ensure that SAILOR products are ready for both services and going forward, also for the eventual introduction of a third service from Beidou.•

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