Ship ahoy: all at sea with 5G

For shipping companies that want to keep in touch with vessels far out to sea, 5G could enable all manner of previously unavailable use cases.

For a long time, ship-to-shore connections had to rely on Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite connectivity for voice and data communications and other things like navigational chart updates. VSAT, however, has always been a cost-prohibitive way of getting online, so ships only connected sporadically.

How can 5G at sea be enabled?

Truly ubiquitous coverage is one of the 5G drivers, and this will be possible only by a close integration of satellite networks into 5G and post-5G networks.

5G connectivity to ships at sea will be enabled by the integration of satellite networks into 5G: it may take a few years to become mainstream, but digital advancements are making it a realistic prospect. Several satellite providers are in the process of launching constellations of hundreds of low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites, such as SpaceX, Telesat and Amazon's Project Kuiper. LEO satellite constellations are located between 500 kilometers and 2,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface, operate in coordinated groups and are moveable.

The large LEO constellations will mainly operate in the Ka-band (26.5-40 GHz). These frequencies enable higher data rates, smaller antennas, narrower beams and greater security. However, higher frequencies tend to be more susceptible to weather and rain fade, the absorption of a radio-frequency's signal by atmospheric rain, snow or ice.

It is expected that within the next decade, constellations of LEO satellites will be able to provide ubiquitous 5G coverage to ships at sea at speeds much faster than the present day. And if current satellite connectivity proposals are approved and become a reality, around 50,000 active satellites will orbit overhead within ten years, estimates McKinsey.

To aid this transformation, shipboard technologies need to evolve, too. Satellite antennas onboard ships are becoming increasingly horizontal and significantly lighter, something that impacts a ship's fuel consumption – so advances in antennas will enable 5G and lead to a reduction in energy usage.

Private networks at sea

Shipping companies have already equipped containers with Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to track their whereabouts around a smart port and to monitor goods in transit. But a ship at sea is effectively a moving warehouse with thousands of assets onboard, all in a relatively confined area.

5G private networks could be perfect for enabling the coverage required to monitor potentially thousands of these connected containers and even individual goods within containers. A container ship is a dense environment and can be well-served by a 5G private network that leverages satellite connectivity and potentially also mesh networks to extend connectivity to the most remote recesses.

What use cases can 5G enable?

5G in maritime could power all kinds of IoT use cases. Maritime companies could leverage 5G to accelerate the deployment and adoption of autonomous vessels, something that shipping companies have been keen to develop, as unmanned vessels can spend longer at sea than human-controlled ones.

IoT-connected sensors powered by 5G connectivity can enable far greater remote operation and control. They could also play a significant role in search-and-rescue for real-time communications and accurate positioning. 5G IoT solutions can also have a considerable impact on route optimization and maintenance costs.

The role of data in 5G connected ships

IoT-connected sensors and objects generate vast amounts of data that shipping companies can collect, analyze and turn into insights that improve operations. For example, shipping companies can use data to evaluate vessel performance versus other shipping companies to give themselves a competitive advantage wherever they can. Data analysis of a ship's performance can enable routing and speed optimization and also predictive maintenance and outage prevention.

Sensors can also be used to monitor fuel volume control and gas emissions, impacting both costs and the environment. It could help shipping companies save money in a world where fuel costs are set to increase and also help them address the International Maritime Organization (IMO) 2020 low sulfur emission regulation.

A connected future for maritime

The EU's 5G Blueprint, part of its Horizon 2020 scheme, is an initiative to enable cross-border road and maritime transportation using 5G. According to Adina-Ioana Vălean, European Commissioner for Transport:

"Digitalization benefits transport, and our maritime sector is no exception. In this respect, 5G has real potential, allowing speedier exchange of data in larger volumes [and] 5G has the potential to improve onboard connectivity and, subsequently, the well-being of both working seafarers and passengers on board."

For more information, read about Port of Antwerp's plans for 5G-driven digital transformation, and watch the webinar featuring the Port of Antwerp, Covestro, Borealis, and BASF.

Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.