Managers from Seaspan, Navig8 and Kazmortransflot discuss their investments in faster satellite communications and data needs for the future
Shipowners want seamless connectivity for operational, data analytics and crew welfare requirements using multi-band VSAT. They demand solutions that minimise outages in satellite communications and higher performance from VSAT providers.
These are the requirements Seaspan Ship Management manager for process improvement Rajesh Gopinathan listed when asked by Maritime Digitalisation & Communications.
“We want dual-band antennas that work on different communications constellations seamlessly,” he says. “We want no shadows to connectivity and better services from providers. This is what we want from VSAT.”
Seaspan installed KVH Industries’ VSAT hardware and connectivity on its fleet of container ships this year. Dual-band antennas, TracPhone V11-IP, were deployed on around 40 ships to deliver VSAT in Ku-band or more robust C-band when ships are outside Ku-band coverage.
The rest of the fleet was kitted out with TracPhone V7-HTS antennas for high throughput Ku-band. This is a 60-cm diameter antenna that delivers data speeds up to 10 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
L-band back-up is provided by Iridium OpenPort “in case there is a VSAT failure or shadow, which is rare as most of our ships operate within Ku-band coverage, even as far north as the Bering Strait,” says Mr Gopinathan.
He thinks it is down to VSAT providers to decide on the communications technology to maximise connectivity and minimise issues.
“We moved to VSAT for smart and connected ships”
“Shipowners do not care what technology is used,” Mr Gopinathan says. “They focus on integrated services that are well priced and reliable.”
This is increasingly important for shipowners as they introduce digitalisation across their fleets and Seaspan is no exception.
“We moved to VSAT for smart and connected ships,” says Mr Gopinathan. “It has been a jump in satellite communications. And going forward, we are looking for better connectivity and we expect new technology will help.”
However, satellite communications on ships remains much slower and less capable than onshore connectivity, which seafarers need to cope with.
“It is about expectations,” says Mr Gopinathan. “People on board are not aware of the construction involved in satellite infrastructure or onboard communications. They see what is available onshore and expect that at sea.”
These expectations need to be managed if seafarers are to remain productive during voyages and in port. “We educate people on board to explain what is available so they are not expecting too much,” says Mr Gopinathan.
Otherwise seafarers will treat satellite communications issues as if there are problems with computers. “When there is a problem they switch VSAT off and then back on again,” says Mr Gopinathan. “But it is not like a computer and causes failures – that needs to be addressed by education.”
On the operational side, VSAT will be required for monitoring onboard systems, ship performance and cargo.
“We want to offer monitoring services with tracking and monitoring sensors in containers and transferring data from the ships,” says Mr Gopinathan. “So, [cargo owners] can monitor from shore to identify issues and then we tell the crew to investigate and fix the problem.”
Navig8 IoT data
Data monitoring is also an important application of VSAT connectivity for Navig8 Group, which uses this information to optimise performance. Navig8 Group chief digital officer Captain Jan Wilhelmsson thinks internet of things (IoT) technology will have a dramatic impact on ship operations if the right data is delivered in regular intervals.
“Ship operators want to get the data every five minutes for vessel performance monitoring, optimised routeing and cutting fuel costs,” he says. But, the regularity of data package transfers can fluctuate between different operators and ships, from daily noon reports to a few minutes, with perhaps one-an-hour being a typical frequency.
Navig8 installs a device next to the voyage data recorder on ships it manages and “takes the signal and sends it to shore” says Capt Wilhelmsson.
“We want to get the data back from ships for performance and fuel optimisation.” However, if shipowners do not have long-term strategies to invest in their ships or insufficient charter periods, there is reluctance to invest in IoT and connectivity.
“Many of the ships of commercial operators are on 6-12 month time charters and owned by different companies,” says Capt Wilhelmsson. “The head owner does not pay for the fuel, the commercial operator or charterer does. So, there is little appetite to invest in high-throughput VSAT and IoT on commercial shipping fleets.”
If Navig8 invests in providing systems for collating and transferring data ashore, when the term charter finishes “we would forfeit that,” Capt Wilhelmsson continues.
“Commercial operators like us want the data from these ships, but we struggle with the short time-charter periods,” he says.
Therefore, IoT solutions should be designed for commercial shipping requirements. “They need to be modular, easy to install and cost-effective.”
One method of obtaining operational data would be to use information from the automatic identification system (AIS). However, Capt Wilhelmsson thinks there is too much AIS data worldwide for it to be useful. “AIS does not have good enough data quality for what we require. There is too much noise,” he says.
As an alternative, Capt Wilhelmsson would like to receive data packages from the ships’ satellite communications hardware.
“We want data points every five minutes on ship positioning,” he explains. “There is a gyro in satellite communication antennas that would give the heading and speed of the ship – and that data would be useful for performance monitoring.”
He urges terminal hardware providers to offer this information to their clients as an add-on service. “It could be used for fuel optimisation,” he says. “Access to these data points would be a value-add for service providers.”
Balancing crew experience and data delivery
Kazmortransflot UK director Yuri Borodulin thinks it is important to combine information from monitoring technology with crew experience to improve ship performance. He thinks ship management could be outsourced if the third party can provide information and knowledge for optimising vessel operations and profitability for the owner.
“We are in the age of information technology,” says Mr Borodulin. “It is important to have database systems and knowledge of the information.”
However, he says crew experience should be considered as important as the information from monitoring systems. “It is important to bring commercial and technical information together – then it is interesting to us,” says Mr Borodulin.
He says there should be a balance between quality of information analytics and the commercial needs of the owner. That investment in the technical quality of crew and shore managers should be as important as outsourcing to shipmanagement companies.
“There should always be balance as it is important to have control,” says Mr Borodulin. “A way forward is to have knowledgeable technical superintendents.”