New satellites bolster maritime safety communications, L-band connectivity and vessel tracking, while VDES has future potential
Iridium Communications delivers maritime safety communications and vessel tracking over its new Next low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation of satellites. This mesh network enables Iridium to deliver emergency communications worldwide and become part of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). The LEO constellation has also enabled bandwidth rises on Iridium Certus services to 704 kbps on the downlink from these satellites, including in the Arctic and around Antarctica.
Iridium spent around US$3Bn replacing its ageing first-generation constellation. It deployed 75 new satellites in two years, with 66 in operation and another nine as in-orbit spares. The active constellation comprises six polar orbiting planes, each containing 11 cross-linked satellites, creating a web of coverage around the Earth. These satellites fly at around 17,000 mph, completing an orbit every 100 minutes, at 777 km above Earth.
Because of this mesh network, maritime communications are highly reliable and with lower latency than with geostationary or medium Earth orbit satellites, says Iridium Communications vice president for maritime Wouter Deknopper.
“There is low risk of blockage for vessels, especially in ports where cranes and buildings can obstruct other signals,” says Mr Deknopper. “Combining a VSAT service with Iridium Certus provides reassurance for vessel owners and managers that if a ship has a VSAT outage, ship business will continue.”
Iridium’s satellites narrow the bandwidth gap between L-band and VSAT, enabling ship operators to consider L-band as primary satellite communications for their vessels.
“The most modern L-band services are disrupting the status quo of connectivity available to the shipping industry,” says Mr Deknopper.
“With the upgrade, Iridium Certus 700 provides global connectivity with the highest speed L-band available, up to 704 kbps down and 352 kbps up.”
Iridium Certus will include GMDSS services once these have been fully tested, says Iridium director maritime safety and security services Kyle Hurst.
“Right now, we are well into testing with equipment installed on vessels and running the system daily,” Mr Hurst tells Maritime Optimisation & Communications. Several stakeholders in emergency communications are carrying out testing, including rescue co-ordination centres (RCCs), NAVAREA and METATREA co-ordinators.
“The system is sending real Maritime Safety Information (MSI) to the test and doing so for the first time in areas of the world not covered by the previous GMDSS satellite system,” says Mr Hurst. This other satellite system involves Inmarsat’s geostationary orbit satellites, with coverage up to around 75° north and south.
“We have been receiving positive feedback on the features of Iridium GMDSS and the new GMDSS terminal by Lars Thrane (LT-3100S) from stakeholders and test vessels,” says Mr Hurst.
Iridium has new features on its GMDSS critical emergency service. Distress Alerting and Distress Voice services are integrated into one button, “which can deliver crucial information about a vessel in distress and can enable crew to talk to the RCC in under 30 seconds” says Mr Hurst.
“Additionally, key status reports from Iridium GMDSS equipment allow RCC’s to understand the onboard situation better and enable a timelier delivery of MSI and safety-related information,” he adds.
Iridium plans to begin pre-launch testing with service providers and more vessels this year, although the testing programme timing is affected by the global Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“Our focus right now is on the testing programme,” says Mr Hurst. “We will continue to ensure we deliver the best GMDSS service the maritime industry has seen and improve maritime safety no matter where vessels are located.”
After the Iridium GMDSS launch, this focus will shift to introducing the Iridium Certus GMDSS programme.
“Iridium Certus is becoming the new standard for maritime core communications, ensuring vessels can continue to operate and get assistance and emergency communications no matter where they are,” says Mr Hurst.
LEO satellites could be the core to a new network for improving ship navigation and communications in the Arctic using VHF Data Exchange System (VDES) technology.
A consortium headed by Danish satellite operator Sternula is developing a constellation using the second generation of the automatic identification system (AIS) for maritime safety, security and navigation.
In the Mariot research project, partners will initially focus on improving communications and navigation services in the Arctic Ocean with LEO satellites using VDES to transfer more data types than currently transmitted by AIS, which is used to monitor marine traffic by more than 200,000 ships.
VDES will enable global connectivity through satellite networks to transfer new types of ship data, says GateHouse business development manager Per Koch.
“VDES offers a faster and more efficient data connection compared to other satellite communications services,” says Mr Koch.
“After the VDES standard was assigned global radio frequencies in 2019, we now have the opportunity to launch the first global VDES network improving navigation services and security for ships sailing through treacherous passages.”
A VDES network could be used for coastal monitoring, or to monitor marine engines and critical equipment on board. Sternula plans to commission up to 50 LEOs for ship tracking and communications, with the first scheduled for launch in 2022.
GateHouse, Space Inventor and Satlab will develop the hardware and software components for the project. Aalborg University will use its experience with launching small satellites to contribute with technology and expert knowledge. The Danish Meteorological Institute will participate with its ice chart service.
AIS data can currently be used for remote ship tracking, improving maritime safety and awareness and tracking containers. Orbcomm provides this information from its satellites to companies such as Pole Star, Hapag-Lloyd and Crowley and government organisations including European Maritime Safety Authority.
Orbcomm chief executive Marc Eisenberg says AIS can support fisheries and environmental monitoring, decrease pre-trip inspection costs and reduce costs of cargo spoilage and cargo claims.
“There are a lot of different applications and there is a pipeline of opportunities,” says Mr Eisenberg. “Global shipping companies are keeping the world going during the coronavirus crisis. So, there is demand for tracking containers and fishing fleets,” he explains.
Pole Star uses Orbcomm AIS data for vessel tracking and screening. In March it partnered with blockchain technology provider Envoy Group enabling companies to manage regulatory and reputational risk and ensure all transactions are compliant.
Spire Global is another provider of AIS information. It has partnered with technology innovator VesselBot to co-develop artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled digital products. This combines AIS tracking with weather data and domain knowledge for products to optimise ship and port operations.
Spire provides AIS data and predictive analytics for vessel usage and cargo patterns from its constellation of more than 80 micro-satellites. It uses machine learning to deliver real-time data and insights and application interfaces for other companies to build their own models.
In 2019, Spire Maritime launched Dynamic AIS, a solution to the disruptions in AIS signals in high traffic zones. This fills in AIS data gaps, helping companies plot safer and more efficient routes, capturing 56% more messages in the South China Sea for example.
Myriota expands communications through satellite acquisition
AIS information provider exactEarth is selling four satellites for C$600,000 (US$425,270) to Myriota Canada. This will accelerate Myriota’s delivery of internet of things (IoT) services and ship tracking data. This deal includes associated spectrum licences and ground station assets.
exactEarth chief executive Peter Mabson will be chairman of Myriota’s board. He says, “This transaction allows us to maintain access to AIS data from the satellites to support our services and will enable us to focus on the large market opportunity in front of us with our second-generation constellation.”
For Myriota chief executive Alex Grant, this acquisition will “increase our capability to deliver low-cost, low-power, secure direct-to-orbit satellite connectivity for IoT.”
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