Using communications for improved ship operation

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

10 May 2017


When maritime broadband was first discussed, some of the promising possibilities that were expounded at the time attracted interest but were found to be not practical given the then state of the marine communications available. Many of those ideas are now becoming a reality. Among the benefits considered as becoming normal was a rapid increase in e-commerce, tele-medicine and remote service monitoring of equipment.

An early example of what might be made possible beyond basic communication was a concept shown at SMM in 2004 by Radio Holland. In this thought provoking idea, Radio Holland proposed that the IT network on board of vessels could be ‘integrated with an infotainment and telephone system that would give video and audio on demand and also allow a wireless control of domestic appliances such as lights and curtains via a pocket PC or PDA’. An integrated Voice over IP system would make it possible to connect telephones to the same network and turn the same pocket PC into a wireless telephone’.

It is amusing to think that over a decade later terms such as pocket PC and PDA have passed out of common use in favour of new ideas such as tablets, phablets and smart phones.

It is amusing to think that over a decade later terms such as pocket PC and PDA have passed out of common use in favour of new ideas such as tablets, phablets and smart phones.

The emphasis on infotainment was perhaps related to intended use on offshore installations and passenger vessels rather than merchant ships but some of the other features listed such as the integration of alarm monitoring systems, navigation information systems and monitoring operating systems; automatic file transfer during e-mail exchange, possibility for remote maintenance of the IT networks from ashore using secure applications were more akin to what is now seen as the advantage of connectivity

All of the proposals were good but while they could work on land, limited bandwidth at sea would be an obstacle that would need to be overcome. For some operators VSAT would provide an answer at a relatively lower cost if enough use could be made of the capacity subscribed to. For those that could not justify VSAT on capacity grounds, there would need to be a wait for broadband services to be developed and made widely available at a reasonable price – something which is really only now beginning to happen.

Simultaneous with the improvements in communications, developments were also taking place in engine monitoring sensors and integrated navigation systems. A gradual switch over from analogue temperature and pressure measurements using dials located directly on equipment to digital displays on screens in an engine control room allowing for unmanned machinery spaces had been taking place for many years but what data was being recorded was retained on board and usually only sent ashore for the superintendents to muse over as paper documents at irregular intervals.

The state of play in this area was the subject of the (link: /guides/remote-assistance-condition-monitoring-insight-report text: ShipInsight special report into remote access) and monitoring already mentioned but new examples are being discussed on a regular basis. As available bandwidth for the maritime sector increases there is no shortage of proposals as to new ways that ships can benefit from communications and connectivity.

The term ‘Big Data’ is now regularly used in connection with shipping and while some are sceptical as to what benefits the concept can bring, others are sure that it will revolutionise the industry.

The term is somewhat ambiguous and has different meaning to different people. Proponents say big data will make shipping more transparent and efficient but sceptics think transparency has already gone too far and is impacting on commercial confidentiality although they may be more inclined to accept that a better understanding of machinery performance can be useful.

Not all uses are necessarily associated with the operation of the vessel or intended for crew use but rather with cargo monitoring. The use of RFIDs (radio Frequency Identification Devices) for tracking containers have been tried on numerous occasions over the last decade but while quite common in shore-based transport have not really taken off for sea transport.

A new development in cargo monitoring is that offered by France-based start-up Traxens. The company was founded in 2013 with the aim of improving the logistics sector. It has been supported from an early stage by the French container ship operator CMA CGM and more recently by rival container line operator MSC.

The services Traxens offers revolve around the Trax-Box device fitted to individual containers which records and transmits data to the company’s headquarters for access by interested parties. The Trax-Box equipped smart containers will be able to communicate among themselves and to the ship’s communication infrastructure by using built-in relay antennas, allowing even the most deeply hidden container to be connected.

All the collected data will then be sent to shipowners or cargo interests via Traxens’ data centres. The data collected and transmitted in real time will cover each box’ movements on land and sea and will including location, temperature, humidity level, vibrations, impacts, attempted burglary, and customs clearance status. When used with certain reefer containers, the system can also be used to adjust temperature when needed.

Maersk Lines operates a similar concept called on its vessels which it calls Remote Container Monitoring (RCM). The system has been trialled through the first half of 2017 and is now being made available as a subscription service. During the trial, more than 4,500 incorrect temperature settings on customers’ reefers were discovered. In 200 of those cases, the setting inaccuracy was severe enough to have caused loss of the cargo if interventions had not been made.

Access to RCM data will be provided to customers who pay a subscription fee, based on the number of containers shipped. Available data includes a shipment overview of all containers with journey assessment parameters, with an option to export to Excel; a temperature graph with option to view O2 and CO2 and ambient temperature; and a view of container positions on a map, with an option to view shipping routes.

The necessary hardware is mounted on all 270,000 Maersk Line reefer containers and includes a GPS that allows global tracking and a modem and SIM card which enable the reefer’s atmospheric conditions and power status to be collected, stored and shared. A satellite transmitter mounted on 400 of Maersk Line’s vessels picks up the data streaming from the modem and sends it real-time to a satellite that beams it back to monitoring teams located around the globe.

If the conditions inside the container change or the reefer malfunctions, an alarm instantly appears on the screens of the RCM teams on shore. In the same instant, the alarm, which describes the problem and the level of urgency, also goes to the closest local repair vendor. Automatic follow-ups are sent as needed until each alarm is resolved.

Class involvement

Interest in big data has no boundaries across the shipping industry as is highlighted by Japanese classification society ClassNK’s establishment of a Ship Data Centre in Tokyo a wholly owned subsidiary that aims to support the use of data gathered from ship operations. In a statement ClassNK said that while it is now possible to collect large volumes of data on a diverse range of items related to ship operations, the approach to data capture is still very fragmented with similar data being sent to several vendors and analysis still being carried out almost entirely on a ship-by-ship basis.

To make larger gains, an effective platform capable of centralising and managing such diverse data is essential. However, creating and maintaining this kind of platform is costly, time-consuming and unrealistic for some organisations. Furthermore, special care needs to be given to the handling of data to ensure confidentiality of information. As an independent, non-profit organisation ClassNK said it drew on its extensive technical knowledge and expertise to develop the Data Center which consists of a secured shipping operations database that will serve as an information hub to independently manage the utilisation of big data in the maritime industry.

Security concerns

Cyber security is a hot topic in shipping and many other areas and the potential for disruption to commercial and operational matters grows with the interconnectivity of offices and assets. Cyber security as a topic is covered by ShipInsight (link: /guides/in-depth-guide-to-software text: in other publications) which should be referred to. Following a major problem from a cyber-attack experienced by Maersk Line in June 2017, the whole industry is now taking the issue more seriously.

Although connectivity of ships will not in itself cause a major problem, the potential problems increase as more equipment and personnel connect to a ship’s communication systems. It should not be assumed that cyber attacks can only occur through e-mails, internet links or infected hardware such as USB sticks as many of the sources of attacks have been traced to corrupted firmware on devices such as internet enabled printers.

This is a matter that ship operators will need to bear in mind and address when deciding on communications equipment and procedures but as things stand only vigilance and good fortune will be able to prevent a problem from occurring.