New technologies and innovations are coming to maritime communications to enable faster connectivity, real-time data transmission and higher definition video quality for crew services
Having fast, reliable and secure connectivity between ships and shore has never been more important than when crew are stuck on board and face restricted travel.
With the coronavirus pandemic, there is also an increased need for all onshore personnel in shipping companies to be connected with real-time data and information from anywhere worldwide on their own devices.
Internet of things (IoT) and cloud technologies enable real-time data telemetry and much more in terms of analytics and informed insight into performance trends. All this needs the latest in maritime communications technology and satellite connectivity.
There will be multiple constellations of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites boosting maritime connectivity within a year or so as more are launched and others planned, providing connectivity in V, Ku and Ka bands for ship VSAT with better access and speed than existing VSAT from geostationary satellites or LEO L-band by Iridium.
Some of the world’s entrepreneurs are battling to become the first to provide commercial VSAT communications over LEO satellites.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX was the first to proceed, launching LEO satellites for its Starlink project. Another 60 satellites were launched in November on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, bringing the total to over 800 units in orbit.
SpaceX intends to begin commercial VSAT services from these satellites in early 2021 with global coverage by the end of the year.
Mr Musk has approval to commission 12,000 satellites into orbit. These will operate using V-band frequencies (40-75 GHz), compared with the standard K-band frequencies (12-40 GHz) other constellations are designed to use.
OneWeb was following SpaceX’s lead until it went into administration in March 2020. Ownership was transferred to a new company in November, with its principal shareholders being the UK Government and the Indian conglomerate Bharti Global, founded by Sunil Bharti Mittal.
OneWeb has 74 satellites operating and 36 more being commissioned in orbit, with plans to have around 650 in the first phase for global connectivity. Shipborne hardware will be ready in 2021 as Intellian has started producing a wide range of dedicated user terminals for OneWeb.
Commercial communications services are set to begin in Q4 2021. Coverage will extend to the UK, Alaska, Canada, northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, and the Arctic Seas.
Other companies are planning to implement constellations. Telesat is laying the foundations for its future growth with a LEO constellation with backing from the Canadian government.
Amazon plans to have more than 3,200 satellites in its Project Kuiper constellation for broadband services and to interconnect its data centres.
Investment in 5G mobile phone networks has increased rapidly, with key players such as Vodafone rolling out new coverage in cities and ports providing lightning-fast connectivity, which can be extended along coastal areas and further for maritime applications.
Having true terrestrial-like broadband at sea will be a game-changer for vessel operators, as P&O Maritime Logistics operations director Paul Jarkiewicz said during Riviera’s Maritime Communications Webinar Week, held in July.
Vessel owners can combine VSAT, 5G, 4G and long-term evolution (LTE) networks to communicate more effectively and transmit data faster.
This is vital as ships become high-performance, remote mobile offices and extensions to shipping company internal networks. 5G’s lower latency and faster connections make video conferencing more important as the global coronavirus pandemic has restricted face-to-face contact.
5G is not just about short-range networks. It will be extended through satellites using the C-band spectrum in the US as operators invest in new satellites.
In Q3 2020, Inmarsat tested one of its satellites for IoT communications using the 5G mobile network standard.
Maritime mesh networks
Another alternative to satellite communications has emerged with Scandinavian companies promoting mesh networks. These use ships as network hubs and conduits for IoT data, with a small fleet able to relay data to shore for uploading to a cloud.
Ericsson has trialled a mesh network using 4G LTE and 5G mobile networks for building a dynamic network architecture. This communications web is between vessels across common international shipping lanes.
Ericsson’s project has already undergone the minimal viable product development phase. It is expected to complete its first field trial in a live maritime environment by Q1 2021, moving this technology a step closer to commercial rollout.
Ericsson estimates with around 200 vessels linked through a mesh network, 99.9% coverage could be guaranteed across major well-trafficked shipping lanes.
Another version will be driven by Telenor Maritime which acquired KNL Networks in November. KNL has developed data access to merchant ships through a secure mesh network. Its WaveAccess network uses ship radio communications as the IoT conduits. This will be expanded in 2021.
Research and testing has shown the potential of flat-panel antennas to support LEO satellite VSAT. There have been successful tests on yachts and developments for commercial vessels over the past five years.
Companies such as Kymeta have focused on developing flat-panel antenna technology for vehicles and military applications
Kymeta and Isotropic Networks are collaborating on a next-generation flat-panel antenna, with Kymeta’s u8 electronically steered antenna terminals getting through beta testing and securing US approval in Q4 2020.
This antenna enables Ku-band communications in mobility applications with reliable electronic beam steering and no moving parts. Kymeta said this antenna could be used in hybrid satellite-cellular connectivity solutions on small vessels and ferries, with more trials expected in 2021.
Despite interest in LEO satellites, there is still more investment in dollar terms in geostationary orbit satellites.
However, these are costly to produce and launch, leaving some satellite operators seeking to maintain services through existing space infrastructure. This can be achieved if satellites can be refuelled to continue providing reliable communications to ships.
Intelsat became the first to successfully complete a refuelling mission in Q1 2020. Its Intelsat 901 (IS-901) satellite in geostationary orbit was refuelled by Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1), owned by Northrop Grumman Corp subsidiary SpaceLogistics.
They will remain connected to extend IS-901’s life for four more years before IS-901 is transferred into a decommissioning orbit in 2025.
In August, a second (MEV-2) was launched on Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket to dock with Intelsat’s 10-02 satellite from Q1 2021. This satellite provides broadband services across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South America.
Telenor Satellite has contracted capacity from this satellite (also named Thor 10-02) to provide mobility coverage, including for maritime, over Europe and the Middle East.
Another company plans to test this emerging technology. Orbit Fab expects its first in-space fuelling unit, Tanker-001 Tenzing, to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 in June 2021.
Riviera will provide free technical and operational webinars in 2021. Sign up to attend on our events page.