The modern connected world

In the modern connected world, we are used to having instant access to advice on virtually any topic under the sun. What the online world had made possible is truly astounding and something earlier generations may have dreamed about but never seriously thought they would experience.

In shipping, the direction that is taking is towards a future of remote monitoring of equipment and systems so as to better control maintenance and performance, probably followed later by full remote management of assets. Some might see a further step with fully autonomous ships but that is not a vision that is shared by all.

Almost no ship that is fitted with an engine or other machinery has not experienced an equipment failure at some time. Redundancy may permit a ship to progress at a slower rate but often there will be a need for immediate human intervention. On an autonomous ship that would not be an option. On a crewed ship, the question as to whether the intervention is by a fully qualified chief engineer or by a less experienced technician guided from shore is one that has yet to play out.

A ship is intended to venture far from land as that is its function and purpose. Until very recently, the ability to even discuss issues with the shore office was quite limited and anything beyond that impossible. It was the advent of with its requirement for satellite equipment on all but the most local coastal vessels which began the communications revolution.

A very small number of ships had been fitted with Inmarsat equipment before GMDSS and for these ships, voice and telex communication was possible while the majority of the world fleet had to rely on radio telephone calls and telegrams for communication. GMDSS began to be rolled out in 1992 and became fully functional in 1999. In the same period, commercial e-mail services began to be developed but use of the internet in shipping was actually quite limited being used mainly by shipbrokers and liner companies for booking services.

In the very early days of GMDSS, the regulation around use of the ship’s satellite equipment – usually an Inmarsat C system – was interpreted as it being only for GMDSS use and not for other reasons. Some owners installed a second system for commercial purposes and so e-mail connection between ship and shore was established. The connection was not the immediate method we have today but a store and forward system that might mean an email sent from ship or shore would only be delivered some hours later.

When Inmarsat introduced its Fleet 77 at the Europort Exhibition in Amsterdam in 2001, the buzz was all about a new era of instant connectivity and burgeoning e-commerce. Around the same time, the idea of data collected from ships’ engines being sent for interpretation by OEMs was also being discussed and actioned with Wärtsilä’s first marine application being in 2002, on a Dutch dredger. In the event, the revolution did not happen overnight and it could be argued that even now it has scarcely begun.

The early engine monitoring systems were not intended to be actioned in real time and the data was sent at convenient times that may have been a month or more apart. Monitoring of temperature and pressure of engines has now been extended to include vibration and lube oil analysis. The latter two can give a far better picture of the condition of the engine than other parameters.

Today, the technology exists to monitor almost all the essential systems and equipment onboard of a modern vessel but for some systems it is quite recent development. Because an average ship’s lifetime is around 25 years, there is a very large proportion of the world fleet that has not been built with monitoring of systems in mind and which are not really economical to retrofit.

However, after almost two decades the industry is beginning to consider what might be possible and because in several areas, the monitoring is just an extension of mandatory requirements, some owners and operators will go the extra step. If the concept gains traction then there will be many service providers and specialists wanting to offer their services to shipowners. There are a variety of possible permutations and what suits one owner may not be what another wants.

For the evolution to continue beyond a series of service agreements for separate systems on a ship, there will be a need for integrators. An integrator will bring together all of the data streams into one acquisition unit – effectively a VDR on steroids – and be able to provide interpretation of the data and advice to the shipowner on all or most of the systems.

This may be difficult to achieve if the OEMs are not onboard with the projects in some way. Some of the equipment makers see servicing and spare parts as an important revenue stream and while they are happy to co-operate with their customers on remote monitoring, they may be reluctant to share information with third party providers.

(link: /guides/remote-assistance-condition-monitoring-insight-report text: Download the 44 page report on Remote Assistance and Condition Monitoring.)