Rapid advances in maritime technologies in recent decades have changed the face of maritime communications and will continue to transform shipowner and shipmanager operations and the lives of seafarers in the near term.
Below, I have outlined four predictions for the technologies and technical forces I foresee having the greatest impact on ship communications as shipping enters the next phase of digitalisation.
VSAT’s tipping point
As its technology has advanced, the number of commercial ships using VSAT for operational communications and crew welfare has more than doubled in the last 10 years.
There are estimated to be around 30,000 maritime VSAT terminals currently in operation with another 3,000-4,000 ships expected to adopt the technology in the next two to three years. That, I believe, will be the tipping point for VSAT.
When those ships are VSAT-equipped, there will be more merchant ships with VSAT than without. Reaching this critical mass of more than half the world’s fleet will create a holistic market shift. Owners without the technology will face greater difficulty in retaining crew, resulting in higher recruitment and training costs. And charterers are likely to favour VSAT-equipped ships for their access to safety, performance and cargo information in real-time.
With the tipping point surpassed, I believe these market forces will create a snowball effect for VSAT uptake during the next decade.
Space-age technology cutting costs
Some of the arguments that shipowners have for not investing in VSAT – namely, high up front and monthly costs – will soon disappear as satellite operators invest in new extreme high-throughput satellites (XTS) and life-extension units for existing satellites.
Intelsat is leading the way on satellite life extension. The business is funding fabrication and the launch of modules that can renew the fuel cells and thus increase the life expectancy of existing satellites, maintaining maritime connectivity without the need for service providers to invest in building new satellites.
Intelsat senior principal product manager Chris Insall told me the first of these modules is scheduled to be launched this year to extend the life of a satellite that provides ocean communications coverage over shipping routes.
This technology allows satellite operators to invest instead in XTS satellites that deliver high-intensity broadband using hundreds of spot beams. In the future these types of satellites will also have software-defined payloads to enable operators to manipulate beams to cover individual ships or to focus on specific areas of high demand.
AI to the rescue
Whatever technology is used for VSAT in maritime brings with it the need for predicting performance issues and potential faults before they can cause connectivity failures. This need will drive the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning applications specifically to predict VSAT issues before they occur.
Currently reactive, VSAT providers will become proactive in preventing problems, analysing data over VSAT using AI to achieve faster remote diagnostics and preventative maintenance.
LEO and flat panels
As satellite technologies continue to evolve, I see a move away from placing satellites in geostationary orbit. Within the next five years, satellite operators are planning to launch more low Earth orbit (LEO) broadband satellites than geostationary satellites.
The first commercial LEO constellation for VSAT is already under development by US-based OneWeb, with the first group launched in February this year.
To access this coverage, flat panel terminals, as opposed to traditional VSAT antennas, will become more common within the global shipping fleet. In fact, demonstrator flat panel antennas have already been successfully tested for maritime VSAT using LEO satellites. It seems inevitable that these will be commissioned, and as the first vessels install flat panels, a new option – and point of comparison – for delivering fast connectivity to passengers and crew will emerge in the market.