5G communications technology will unlock new connectivity applications to transform vessel operations
Combined 5G and VSAT communications paired with digitalisation and data analytics will be game-changers for vessel operations.
The fifth generation of global mobile communications will help deliver super-fast crew welfare, real-time data and information exchange, and video-streaming applications.
This 5G revolution comes as legacy 2G services are turned off and 3G is eventually retired.
Shipping companies and vessel fleet operators are already investing in devices to connect to 4G and long-term evolution (LTE) mobile networks. These are available in ports, coastal waters and in some areas offshore, such as across the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
5G networks are expected to carry greater volumes of voice, video, internet and data traffic as these services are rolled out worldwide.
P&O Maritime Logistics operations director Paul Jarkiewicz says vessel operators will benefit from 4G/LTE and then 5G. “Broadband at sea will become a game-changer,” he said during the ‘5G’s impact on maritime operations’ webinar, held in association with ST Engineering iDirect on 23 July as part of Riviera Maritime Media’s Maritime Communications Webinar Week.
Mr Jarkiewicz provided an offshore support vessel and tug owner’s perspective on the beneficial applications 5G should enable. “What VSAT, 5G, and today 4G and LTE bring to the table for us, is the ability to communicate effectively, and to transmit data faster,” he said.
“Our ships are branch offices of our businesses,” Mr Jarkiewicz continued. Seafarers on board P&O Maritime Logistics’ ships are expected to manage these branch offices efficiently and with agility. By investing in connectivity, the company can “give them the tools with which to be successful”. These tools include effective communications equipment, data analytics capabilities, timely business information, crew morale and welfare tools and collaboration through internal and external information.
5G, 4G, LTE and VSAT connectivity is required because offshore vessels are technologically advanced, high-performing platforms, with ever-increasingly complex systems on board.
“The reliability of these assets needs to be maintained at high levels so the vessel management team can deliver safe, reliable services for our clients,” said Mr Jarkiewicz.
“These systems provide us with an enormous amount of data that needs to be sifted through and analysed.” P&O Maritime Logistics uses data transmissions and analytics to detect maintenance needs.
“This enables us to be proactive in how we schedule interventions, and we start to learn insights about the equipment we own,” Mr Jarkiewicz said. “5G will help us do this faster, but the transformation lies with us.”
5G is being introduced in ports and coastal areas. For extended coverage, investment in low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites with 5G capabilities will be required. “5G opens doors and opportunities that we do not yet comprehend,” said Mr Jarkiewicz. “If you add 5G LEO satellites to this equation, then we start to work in almost real-time, across the globe, across all time-zones.”
Remote operations, diagnostics, collision avoidance, vessel planning and client demand management would be enabled. “All of these possibilities come to mind,” he continued. “With increased throughput and decreased latency, 5G will enable data transfers from IoT sensors to happen much, much faster.”
P&O Maritime Logistics will use 5G connectivity to monitor lube oils, engine condition and vibration data faster. It already does this over 4G and LTE in ports under a collaboration with Baker Hughes on the VitalyX monitoring system.
“5G capability on the back of LEO satellites will forever change our strategies for communications, data collection, and analysis,” said Mr Jarkiewicz. “It will provide us with an office-like experience anywhere in the world, and it will allow us to collaborate with our vessel management teams in real-time like never before.” It will enable the group to develop new strategies for analysing equipment health, planning maintenance regimes and enhancing crew morale and welfare.
“While we will need to plan for this new ability, we cannot help but be excited,” Mr Jarkiewicz said. “I am equally sure there are things in IoT we have not even thought of. Ultimately this will help us be smarter in managing our assets, in an increasingly real-time environment.”
5G capabilities and coverage
These are the potential benefits, technology expectations and aspirations from a vessel operator’s perspective, but what is the reality? This was offered by Vodafone Roaming Services head of strategic development Gerrit Jan Konijnenberg, who said there is nearly complete coverage around the world’s coastlines with mobile or cellular networks. 4G covers around 93% of coastlines, and if 3G and 3G+ is included this is 99%. Vodafone and its partners provide services in 67 countries with pay-as-you-go, regional bundles or per-country pricing.
“As there are more connected ships, we support the digitalisation of the maritime ecosystem,” said Mr Konijnenberg. “A ship spends 18 days per month in reach of 4G. So we can handle large volumes of non-time critical data transfers in ports and coastal waters at low costs.”
Outside this coverage, ships transition to VSAT for communications and time-critical data delivery.
Mr Konijnenberg said 4G bandwidth is around 200-300 Mbps, which is at least 10-times faster than commercial maritime VSAT, with latency of 300 milli-seconds (ms). 5G would be as fast as 1-10 Gbps and just 3 ms. “5G is more than 10-times more cost efficient than 4G in radio cost of delivery,” he said.
Developing global 5G coverage will take several years, but progress could be made in two. Mr Konijnenberg said there would be around 190M subscriptions to 5G networks in 10 countries by the end of this year. Within two more years there should be Vodafone 5G networks in 19 countries and 43 partner market countries. By 2025 there could be 2.8Bn subscriptions and 65% of the world’s population could have 5G coverage.
“5G will benefit the maritime sector with lower latency and higher speeds,” said Mr Konijnenberg. He expects there to be hybrid coverage in three years’ time involving 5G terrestrial and LEO satellites. AST is investing in satellite-based 5G SpaceMobile to extend coverage.
For hybrid 5G/LEO services to become reality, there will need to be investment in a constellation, ground network and new modem/terminals on vessels. Ground station and modem technology could be developed by ST Engineering under its iDirect and/or Newtec brands to a 5G standard.
ST Engineering iDirect head of mobility Andrew Faiola says these developments will be vital for maritime where satellite communications is critical to operations.
“We are in the midst of one of the most dynamic periods of innovation in the satellite industry with technology in space and on the ground developing rapidly,” he said during the webinar. “We see the introduction of 5G as an incredible opportunity to leverage the many benefits of satellites in the overall telecommunications infrastructure.”
There will be a much wider range of services in a 5G ecosystem for satellite operators and their maritime customers, but there would be certain requirements.
“To successfully deploy the full potential of 5G, a satellite is required to maximise coverage, optimise network performance and improve the user experience,” said Mr Faiola. “5G is intended to be a network of networks with standards developed to integrate different access networks, whether cellular, satellite, wifi, or others into a seamless operating environment.”
Benefits include hybrid connectivity in port, near shore and at sea if this system and standard is in place, “leading to great improvements in operational efficiency, quality of experience for crew and passengers, and situational awareness,” said Mr Faiola.
“The adoption of standards will also bring down the costs of equipment and service in what has traditionally been an expensive niche,” he added.
Through standardisation, 5G will enable mainstream integration of software-defined satellite and high altitude platforms into terrestrial networks where they have previously been more complicated to integrate and highly customised. This will increase choice, access options, and available bandwidth to make broadband at sea more competitively priced.
“The merger of satellite, mobile cellular, fixed broadband, and local area networks into one converged solution will support faster speeds, greater capacity, massive scalability, ultra-low latency, and high reliability,” said Mr Faiola. “This will create a seamless environment with vastly improved quality of service, based on maximum bandwidth for the applications operators are running at the time they need them.”
ST Engineering is developing its technology to align with 5G standards to deliver end-to-end networks. Mr Faiola said the 5G standard is designed to virtualise, automate and streamline service delivery.
“Connected vessel strategy envisions 5G at its core,” he said. ST Engineering is driving 5G satellite innovations with organisations such as the European Space Agency and developing a satellite 5G architecture in its platform.
“We believe in driving the new 5G standards for satellite networks,” said Mr Faiola. “As a result we are building the principles of Evolved Packet Core, multi-waveforms, edge computing and cloud-base into our platform, so that it is no longer a separate, standalone network.”
Rather, it will become a standard radio interface within the multi-radio network architecture of 5G for maritime users to utilise for IoT applications, real-time monitoring, ultra-fast crew welfare and video streaming.
Riviera Maritime Media’s ‘5G’s impact on maritime operations’ webinar, sponsored by ST Engineering iDirect, was held on 23 July. It assessed the extent 5G can and will transfer to the maritime industry, and where vessel operators can integrate the benefits. It covered: