High-throughput and LEO satellites bring higher bandwidth for new VSAT applications
Shipping will have a greater choice of communications technology as new constellations of satellites are launched and networks introduced.
Traditional L-band communications remain important to shipping for voice calls, messaging, email and internet access, with Ku-band and Ka-band VSAT enabling crew to access online applications, social media and digital content.
Ship operators, managers and owners use VSAT for operational requirements, including downloading and uploading data to and from ships. This includes weather reports for voyage planning, documents for port authorities, charterers, regulators and class, plus connection to superintendents and shore managers.
VSAT enables internet of things (IoT) technology deployment on ships to remotely monitor the performance and condition of equipment, remote diagnostics of bridge systems, software updates, cyber security upgrades and operational voice communications.
For crew, VSAT provides the pipe for welfare services such as voice over IP, internet access, social media, instant messaging and media content.
The launch of high throughput satellite (HTS) constellations in the past five years has lessened bandwidth shortages for shipping lines. These include Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) network, the basis of its Ka-band Fleet Xpress service to container ships, which includes FleetBroadband L-band back-up.
For Ku-band technology, Intelsat and SES have been the main investors in HTS, with Intelsat’s EpicNG constellation covering most coastal seas and SES providing HTS coverage through its SES-12 and SES-14 geostationary satellites.
Its HTS coverage also comes from the Ka-band O3b constellation of medium Earth orbit satellites, used by cruise ships for passenger connectivity.
VSAT is enabling shipping’s digitalisation wave and enabling owners to reap the benefits of “the transformative power of data” says Marlink president of maritime Tore Morten Olsen.
This is helping owners “reduce fuel consumption, lower emissions and improve vessel performance” through IoT applications.
“As more capabilities are brought to shipping from satellite communications, this will drive demand for VSAT,” he tells Maritime Optimisation & Communications. Crew connectivity is a major consumer of VSAT capacity on a ship, but operational data requirements are rising.
“There is more demand from connecting assets, as engine and equipment manufacturers’ assets are connected, this also increases demand,” says Mr Olsen. “Vessels with IoT on board will consume more bandwidth.”
Marlink provides Ku-band VSAT through its Sealink service, and is the second-largest distributor of Inmarsat’s Ka-band services, having installed about 30% of all Fleet Xpress installations.
Mr Olsen says more bandwidth will be available to maritime when Inmarsat commissions its second-generation GX and new Ku-band HTS satellites are launched, such as SES-17.
More VSAT capacity will also be available from low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, being launched by OneWeb and planned by SpaceX and Telesat.
“There is increasing awareness of what is coming for satellite communications,” says Mr Olsen. There will be specific applications for LEO constellations, which have less latency than geostationary satellites as LEO satellites operate in orbits around 1,200 km from the Earth surface, compared with geostationary satellites, orbiting at a height of about 36,000 km.
“With increasing focus on using cloud-based applications there is more interest in latency, as cloud services can be more affected by latency,” says Mr Olsen. Latency also affects video streaming and video conferencing services on ships.
Availability of LEO services to ships will depend on the onboard hardware’s capability to identify radio frequency and track beams and satellites. Shipboard antennas and terminals will need to seamlessly switch between satellites in one constellation and switch between multiple constellations in different orbits.
“We will see more antennas developed for different orbits and spectrum frequencies,” says Mr Olsen. Conventional tri-axis antennas may need to track geostationary, LEO and MEO satellites and switch between C-, Ka- and Ku-band services.
Manufacturers have built tri-band and multi-orbit antennas for cruise ships, which can communicate on these bands with satellites in different orbits.
There was initial interest in using flat-panel antennas for LEO satellites, but this seems to have diminished with more interest now in producing domed antenna.
“We expect there will be specific antennas for LEO, but these will be in small domes to protect them from the environment and are likely to be proprietary to a constellation,” says Mr Olsen.
Antennas are linked to below-deck equipment, consisting of modems, firewalls, antenna control systems, network gateways and routers, with one coaxial cable for power and radio frequency transmission.
Below-deck equipment also includes smart devices for monitoring and channelling signals around the ship. This can include wireless or wired networks. Marlink’s Xchange integrated communications management platform provides all these services for high quality voice, VoIP and data. It enables masters and shore managers to control onboard networks, economise communications and maintain onboard IT configurations.
Managers can give seafarers access to communication services in a controlled environment and define crew communication costs.
The next phase of development will see reduced onboard hardware and increasing software use.
“We are in the process of virtualising Xchange so this can operate on any server on board, to reduce the need for additional hardware installation,” says Mr Olsen. “And we will have new value-added services running with the IT and monitoring the operational technology.”
With increasing connectivity on ships comes risks from cyber threats. Which is why shipping companies must ensure they have cyber risk management in place by January 2021 when IMO’s rules including this in ship safety management systems comes into force.
“There is interest in IT services, as well as demand for crew welfare, and having cyber security services ready for 2021,” says Mr Olsen.
“Big shipping companies and owners have this under control and their people are aware and competent to deal with this,” he adds. “But smaller, family-owned shipping companies have small fleets and are finding implementing IMO Cyber 2021 challenging.”
On the onboard and services side, the next phase of development involves outsourcing fleet IT management services using VSAT connectivity and ensuring owners are cyber secure and compliant. Beyond that it will be deploying IoT networks and integrating them with shipboard systems and company-wide remote monitoring strategies.