Communications beyond safety

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

10 July 2019

Communications beyond safety

When radio was first introduced to ships in the early 20th century, its use was purely for commercial and not safety communications. In a reversal of this situation, satellite communications were first introduced with a safety role that has now expanded into the commercial and other spheres.

When Inmarsat C stations were first fitted to ships as part of GMDSS, it did not take ship operators long to realise the potential for using them for routine communications as a more reliable service than radiotelephony. The fact that Inmarsat C e-mail was transmitted on a ‘store and forward basis’ was not considered an obstacle as most commercial traffic between ship and shore was not particularly time critical.

In common with many other industries, shipping is now a hungry consumer of data with some operators prepared to treat ships at sea as an extension of their shore network transmitting all manner of information and data in each direction. As well as routine messages connected with the ship’s employment or maintenance requirements addressed to personnel, many of the newest vessels afloat also transmit data directly from navigation equipment and machinery systems to shore control centres either at the operator’s offices or to OEMs where machinery performance can be expertly assessed.

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.

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.

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.