Digital selective calling, AIS, VHF data exchange and hands-free accessories improve shortwave radio and satellite communications
New communications technologies will improve towage safety, increasing data transmissions and enabling more shore support for tugs.
Traditional communications are through marine VHF [very high frequency] radio and the maritime band, which remain effective methods.
Marine VHF radio equipment includes portable two-way radios, often in conjunction with fixed-mount sets for maximum transmit power, says Pryme Radio president and chief technologist Dave George. This company is a manufacturer of professional audio accessories for two-way radios and wireless push-to-talk (PTT) over cellular applications.
VHF and medium and high-frequency (MF/HF) radios have evolved with an extended range and capabilities such as weather broadcasting, compliance with IMO’s Global Maritime Distress & Safety System (GMDSS), digital selective calling (DSC) and built-in GPS receivers, “allowing them to be used for both routine and GMDSS purposes” says Mr George.
“In a distress situation, tug masters and crew members can send critical information automatically with one touch of a button,” he tells Tug Technology & Business.
Marine VHF portable and fixed-mount radios also display information from the automatic identification system (AIS), helping tug masters avoid collisions by providing vessel position, course and speed.
“AIS has now become overloaded, prompting the maritime community to look for new ways to digitalise communications”
“More advanced transceivers support AIS and operate on a mesh network,” says Mr George. AIS aids navigation, fleet monitoring, rescue operations and supports application-specific messages. But more is coming down the pipeline.
“Due to industrywide adoption, AIS has now become overloaded, prompting the maritime community to look for new ways to digitalise communications,” says Mr George.
The VHF Data Exchange System (VDES) is a hybrid transmission solution “that has the potential to become a disruptive technology in the maritime sector.”
VDES enables vessel traffic services, search and rescue (SAR) communications and maritime safety information broadcasts.
For further safety, tug crew can use accessories for marine radio for hands-free communications. “This is possible with wireless accessories like Bluetooth adapters that plug into two-way radios and pair with wireless headsets or microphones,” says Mr George. “This gives crewmembers more freedom of movement, which is a major advantage in a high-intensity tugboat environment.”
Pryme’s BT-520 Bluetooth adapter works with Icom’s M85 marine radio, but similar versions are available for other radio models.
“The key to tugboat safety for towage, channelling, hook-up, mooring, and berthing operations will always be efficient and effective communications,” says Mr George.
VHF can also be used to send data or internet of things (IoT) through a mesh network, such as KNL Networks’ WaveAccess Collect, which links vessels together over shortwave radio.
IoT and voice calls can be channelled over satellite communications such as Iridium’s second-generation constellation of low Earth orbit satellites and its new Certus services. Bandwidth across this service was recently upgraded to 700 kbps. Iridium also secured approval to begin providing GMDSS.
Inmarsat is increasing its capacity to provide connectivity over Ka-band with new satellites for the Global Xpress constellation. It is also enhancing its safety communications over FleetBroadband’s L-band satellite connections and adding MSI services to its long-established GMDSS services.
These compete with Ku-band VSAT from different constellations in geostationary orbit operated by Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat, Telesat and others. With smaller VSAT antennas in 60 cm or even less than 40 cm diameter now available, these services are increasingly being adopted by tug owners.
In February 2020, KVH Industries introduced a regional version of its global AgilePlans connectivity-as-a-service VSAT with a 37-cm diameter antenna. This enables bandwidth of up to 5 Mbps on the downlink from the satellite and 2 Mbps on the uplink, by using KVH’s TracPhone V3-HTS antenna and AgilePlans Regional service.
KVH executive vice president for mobile connectivity Mark Woodhead says this service would be ideal for tugs, workboats and smaller commercial vessels to leverage fast and reliable internet connectivity.
“As the pace of maritime digitalisation accelerates, we wanted to ensure smaller commercial vessels could take advantage of the all-inclusive, no-commitment AgilePlans offering, which has proven so successful for commercial fleets worldwide,” says Mr Woodhead.
Vessel operators can use faster connectivity for real-time data transfers to improve decision making for fuel optimisation, route planning, to support cloud-based software programs, remote system monitoring and data analytics.
Icom introduced new versions of fixed VHF radio for release in Q1 2020. IC-M400BBE and IC-M423GE are similar to their predecessors but feature an integrated GPS and external GPS antenna to meet the latest ITU-R M493-14 regulations.
IC-M423GE also has enhanced audio and dual-station capabilities and IC-M400BBE can be stored out-of-sight and controlled by a remote Commandmic microphone. Icom has also reintroduced the HM-195CMI Commandmic interface enabling multi-station control of IC-M423GE and IC-M400BBE.
JRC/Alphatron Marine has introduced a new 5-inch touchscreen-controlled Class A VHF radio (JHS-800S) for workboat operations and a version for inland vessel communications.
JHS-800S has a control unit, speaker, radiotelephone, DSC and high-brightness and colour liquid-crystal display. It has hi-fi audio quality voice through the speaker and a protection rating of IP56.
JHS-800S has self-diagnosis, DSC for distress transmissions, playback and radio call recording in real-time. It has a Bluetooth interface for communicating with an external wireless speaker microphone, which makes it possible to talk at a location away from the JHS-800S and remote-control functions allowing DSC calls by selecting AIS targets or channel selecting for voice communication from external equipment such as a multifunctional display. JHS-800S is prepared to accept intelligent VHF block channel selection in the future.
The inland waterways version of VHF has the same functions but comes with an automatic transmitter identification system.
Navico introduced a new VHF radio in 2019. Simrad RS40B is the first VHF radio capable of sending and receiving AIS position data. It can share the host vessel’s position with nearby AIS-equipped vessels and receive AIS information from them. This improves situational awareness and collision avoidance for navigators.
Position data is viewable on the RS40-B screen and can be overlaid on a chart or radar through a compatible chartplotter. RS40-B’s Track Buddy enables mariners to share their location and keep track of five others.