Shipowners and managers can reduce operating costs by using cloud-based applications and system monitoring delivered over VSAT
Collaboration on communications and digitalisation is an important strategy for providing the best connectivity to ships using VSAT. As Marlink and Microsoft have discovered, their partnership is spawning innovation to deliver data analytics and cloud-based services to shipping.
Maritime Digitalisation & Communications spoke to Marlink president of maritime Tore Morten Olsen about the partnership, its next steps and future trends in VSAT.
“Our main purpose in engaging with Microsoft is to jointly develop communications solutions that benefit vessels, as most cloud services are based on industries where there are no bandwidth limitations, which are encountered in maritime,” he explains.
“It is about giving shipowners options that can be tailored as cloud-based solutions for maritime.” Together, they have created an ecosystem using Microsoft’s Azure Stack where owners and developers can create their own solutions.
“We are running trials with Microsoft and some of the largest operators in the merchant shipping market are seeing real benefits,” says Mr Olsen, who cannot name the shipping companies for contractual reasons. Marlink provides VSAT connectivity using its Sealink Ku-band service to access Azure Stack.
They are jointly developing a virtual local data centre to manage business, IT and internet of things (IoT) applications. This will use the same application model, self-service portal, and interfaces the Azure public cloud has, providing continuous deployment and integration of pay-as-you-use services.
“Cloud-based solutions need VSAT connectivity”
“Cloud-based solutions need VSAT connectivity,” says Mr Olsen. But access is only one element, as ships do not have enough bandwidth for real-time access. The answer is a hybrid cloud service that replicates services on board vessels. “A hybrid cloud can be delivered through our Xchange server, but in the long run, ships will need a dedicated server on board.”
Marlink and Microsoft will invite service vendors to join them in cloudifying their maritime applications for onboard administration, seafarer management, fuel and energy management, and maintenance operations.
“We will enable the connection of onboard sensors to shore for remote diagnostics, condition monitoring and fuel optimisation"
“We will enable the connection of onboard sensors to shore for remote diagnostics, condition monitoring and fuel optimisation as owners have their own contracts with third-party suppliers, and shipmanagers may want to establish their own software across their fleets.”
There are also rising requirements from shipowners for managing onboard IT over VSAT. Marlink provides ships with Palantir’s advanced IT solutions to address this trend. “Owners want connectivity and a fully ICT-managed solution so they can outsource IT services,” says Mr Olsen. “This is gaining traction in the market to overcome the challenges of managing onboard IT.”
There is also a growing trend of VSAT suppliers partnering with start-up companies to deliver services that can reduce operating costs for owners. Marlink partnered with Dutch start-up We4Sea in Q4 2018 to offer a monitoring solution that helps owners reduce fuel consumption and improve vessel operations.
“Our We4Sea start-up has captured interest from owners,” says Mr Olsen. “We are into the development phase for the core services that involves digital twin technology and operations optimisation.”
VSAT is delivered through collaboration, with each partner playing a vital part. For example, Marlink works with Inmarsat to deliver Fleet Xpress connectivity, a combination of Ka-band and L-band. For its Sealink VSAT, Marlink uses Ku-band and C-band coverage from satellites operated by Intelsat, Eutelsat, Telesat, SES and Asia Broadcast Satellite.
“We have 30 different satellites and 50 different beams,” says Mr Olsen “For network quality, we have overlapping beams, especially in congested areas, where we have wider orbital spreads to reduce blockage issues.”
“It is important to have hybrid antennas on board to switch between the frequencies of Ku and Ka”
On ships, Marlink installs hardware from antenna manufacturers, below-deck equipment including modems from iDirect, and its own Xchange. With more development coming in Ka-band and expanding high-throughput Ku-band, there is greater need for dual-band antennas.
“It is important to have hybrid antennas on board to switch between the frequencies of Ku and Ka,” says Mr Olsen.
He thinks ships also need L-band for redundancy, which is vital when managers want to remotely monitor onboard operations. “As soon as ships have sensor data on board, vessels cannot afford to have a breakdown in communications,” he explains.
There are other methods of ship connectivity when vessels are close to shore, such as port wifi and coastal 4G networks, with higher speeds and lower latency than VSAT when vessels are in range.
“This is smart connectivity, where we optimise usage depending on speed and availability, selecting the most effective route for communications,” says Mr Olsen.
Marlink’s goal is to deliver a platform specifically designed for the maritime environment “that will provide fast, reliable access to digital applications regardless of the availability of communications services,” says Mr Olsen. “Ultimately, it will allow the shipping industry to release the potential of cloud functionality to optimise business and operations.”
Key VSAT terms
Description of the main terms commonly used in maritime satellite communications
ACU: antenna control unit
BUC: block up-converter
IF: intermediate frequency
IMA: integrated maritime antenna
LNB: low-noise block down-converter
RF: radio frequency
VSAT: very small aperture terminal
GEO: geostationary Earth orbit
HTS: high-throughput satellite
Hz: measurement of frequency
LEO: low Earth orbit
MEO: medium Earth orbit
3G/4G/5G: third, fourth and fifth generation of mobile phone networks
ACM: adaptive coding and modulation
CIR: committed information rate
DVB-S2: digital video broadcasting over a second generation of satellites
FEC: forward error correction
Gbps: bandwidth (billion bits per second)
GSM: global system for mobile communications (mobile phone networks)
IoT: internet of things
IP: internet protocol
Kbps: bandwidth (thousand bits per second)
LAN: local area network
LTE: long-term evolution (4G standard for wireless broadband)
Mbps: bandwidth (million bits per second)
MIR: maximum information rate
SDPC: single channel per carrier
TDMA: time division multiple access
WAN: wide area network
Wifi: wireless fidelity
Radio frequency bands
Radar frequency bands according to Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standards are:
VHF: very high frequency; 0.03-0.3 GHz
UHF: ultra high frequency; 0.3-1 GHz
L-band: long wave; 1-2 GHz
C-band: Compromise wave; 4-8 GHz
X-band: Crosshair (military-only); 8-12 GHz
Ku-band: Kurz-under; 12-18 GHz
Ka-band: Kurz-above; 27-40 GHz
(Kurz is German for ‘short’)
Snapshot CV: Tore Morten Olsen
After 20 years' service in the satellite communications industry, Tore Morten Olsen remains a leading authority as president of maritime at Marlink. He joined Telenor as chief executive of its Slovakia operations in 1999. After heading up Telenor’s Sealink operations, he became president of Marlink’s maritime operations in 2008.
IoT and cloud services will be discussed at Riviera Maritime Media's Maritime Cyber Risk Management Forum, in London, in June.