Taking digital to the high seas

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The maritime industry is ready to benefit from digital transformation and much can be achieved in this traditional industry where the adoption of technology has been relatively slow. Real Times sat down with Emil Regard, managing director of BlueTide Communications, a specialist in maritime VSAT communications, to get his take on digital transformation in shipping.

Real Times: What is your overall view of the maritime industry today and the way technology is impacting it?

Emil Regard: At present, I see the satellite and shipping industries really starting to collide. Today ships can afford always-on, monthly flat-rate broadband connectivity using very small aperture terminal (VSAT) services. Previously it was narrow band, which is metered and expensive, and only a few people onboard the ship could access it. VSAT offers a bigger bandwidth pipe, which allows many people on the ship to access the internet and other network applications at the same time. The satellite sector has been evolving fast: Ka and Ku band have evolved, high throughput satellite (HTS) technology, spot beams and more now offer many new options to shipping companies.

RT: Are ships crewed by enough specialists to implement digital tools effectively?

ER: Ships’ captains and crew have a lot of new technology onboard, however IT networking is a specialty. So, they do require some special training. Particularly because there is pressure from the business and administrative viewpoint, which sees a ship as a multimillion dollar corporate asset roaming the seas not connected to the network. Shipping companies are looking for communications companies they trust and who can provide them with solutions today that are fully managed remotely and that will still be effective in three or four years’ time. Ships are very different environments as compared to company offices so communications companies need to acknowledge this and not just deliver a connection on the ship and walk away. It requires a fully-managed service, right down to the individual device, including training the relevant people.

RT: What start-ups and/or OTT providers do you think are disrupting a very traditional industry?

ER: Satellite connectivity is going to the next level within the next 5-7 years, with companies like OneWeb and SpaceX launching thousands of satellites on a low earth orbit (LEO) network. They are redefining satellite connectivity by effectively offering “LTE in the sky”. In the near future, we can expect voice and data coverage pretty much everywhere on earth – including the oceans. LEO satellites do not have the same latency as higher orbit satellites, so they will be able to offer higher speeds and lower costs with better connectivity.

RT: Is there that much demand to provide for?

ER: Yes, thanks mostly to the Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data. Maritime companies recognize the importance of data gathering and analysis on ship to enable predictive maintenance. They also acknowledge that better connectivity also means access to more data from off-ship, like the latest weather information, wave data, route updates, right through to social media for the crew. They want their ships at sea to be connected extensions of their land operations.

RT: What other new digital technologies will impact the maritime industry?

ER: Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) can help address problems that most crews simply are not trained to deal with. Satellite antennas on board could be faulty for example, and crew members can now be walked through repairing them by connecting them via AR goggles to an expert on land.
Monitoring fuel consumption is very important on board, as is engine temperature and the cargo in the ship’s hold. All of these can now be monitored using IoT sensors, their data analyzed and preventative actions taken. Being able to track a ship’s course in real time is a big advance too, and connected sensors throughout the ship can ultimately help shipping companies reduce costs and improve bottom lines.

RT: Where does crew welfare rank in digital transformation?

ER: Crew welfare is a big driver behind digital transformation. I’ve been in meetings where the decision-maker was in the room and it was not the CIO or the CEO but the crew’s union rep! Crew welfare and enhanced connectivity is essential to give them an end-user experience on board like they would have on land.
In addition, mobile proliferation means there are now many more devices on board a ship, so shipping companies need to factor bring your own device (BYOD) and mobile device management (MDM) policies into their thinking. Crew welfare enhances loyalty and employee satisfaction, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see dedicated crew networks emerge at some point.

RT: All those extra devices must also mean extra security?

ER: Yes, which poses the question “who is in charge of cybersecurity on ships now?” It is traditionally the “techiest” guy on board or the captain. Now they require specific training and a focus that shipping companies have not needed before because the Operational Technology was not connected to the Network Technology.  In order to take full advantage of the applications that require a connected ships, almost all Operating Technology must be connected to the network. A ship’s safety officer could become its cybersecurity officer since they are already trained in regulations and compliance. Shipping companies need to change their mindset: more connected ships mean comparable risks to offices on land. The big difference is though that if you get a virus in your land office, the office isn’t going to sink!

RT: So as satellite grows, how else do you see digital influencing shipping?

ER: I think connectivity is central. At the moment, we are connecting ships at speeds between 256Kbps and 5Mbps – not really that fast. We expect 10 to 20Mbps connections to happen soon, and then longer term, if LEO networks can provide LTE in the sky, ships will be able to enjoy the connectivity needed to drive really advanced digital transformation.

Find out more about transport and logistics solutions from Orange Business Services and read our white paper on the shipping industry. BlueTide Communications is an Orange partner and a specialist in maritime VSAT communications.