Carrying Maritime Safety Communications


Published Aug 11, 2017 9:13 PM by Ronald Spithout

At Inmarsat, we say safety is “in our DNA,” partly because seafarer safety was among the primary objectives set out for the organisation on its formation as an intergovernmental agency in 1979. In the intervening years, reliable communications have become even more critical for ships, as their operations increasingly depend on technology.

Inmarsat is now a stock exchange-listed entity, but it continues to fulfil a public service role for seafarers. It remains the only recognised provider of Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) that meets the International Maritime Organization (IMO) performance standards. As such, Inmarsat can report that, behind the scenes, 2017 is shaping up as a watershed year for the communications that sustain seafarer safety.

The IMO is updating GMDSS, but the process is not expected to be complete before 2021-22. However, in a related move, Inmarsat will launch SafetyNET II before the end of this year. SafetyNET II is an internet-based version of SafetyNET – the Maritime Safety Information messaging system on which seafarers rely for Search and Rescue coordination.

Often unacknowledged, SafetyNET has been connecting ships at sea via satellite and land earth stations with regional Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres for over 20 years. Between 2009 and 2014, 15,000 distress alerts were received over SafetyNET. The network also broadcasts 360,000 messages each year, including local weather, navigation and piracy warnings. All messages from shore-to-ship are received free of charge.

SafetyNET is used by 160,000 vessels, but is only available to ships equipped to receive Inmarsat-C. SafetyNET II will also be available to L-band users, reflecting the fact that Inmarsat’s FleetBroadband has entered the IMO performance standard approvals process for GMDSS.

Irrespective of regulatory developments, however, making real improvements to safety at sea relies on more than satellite services. Inmarsat has been working closely with its Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre partners to upgrade SafetyNET II, investing in web-based software that is easy to use and enables message scheduling, monitoring, repeat and cancellation capability.

In fact, SafetyNET II is laying the foundation for the richer safety-critical information and accountability that will enhance GMDSS 2.0, under development by the IMO.

As a secure web-based service, SafetyNET II is much easier to use for MSI and SAR broadcasts, which will reduce the risk of erroneous information reaching vessels. It also allows the originator to monitor the status of every message, confirming if it has been sent, scheduled to send or cancelled as well as confirm that messages were broadcast correctly.

These are critical improvements, although their significance may be lost on service providers without Inmarsat’s maritime heritage. Nor is SafetyNET II simply based on IMO expectations. One of its most noticeable SAR features may prove to be something which is not technically complex: to avoid language-related issues, users will be able to override the default and use the MRCC in their domicile sea-zone.

Again, there is no “distress chat” envisaged under GMDSS 2.0, but this functionality is now an expectation, not an aspiration: Inmarsat has responded to MRCC feedback to include this within SafetyNET II.

There is also no reason SafetyNET II services could not be used by our Fleet One customers, bringing the same support to vessels falling outside SOLAS. Already, we are working with manufacturers to reduce the size and the cost of the shipboard terminals.

SafetyNET II is being phased in progressively across different geographical areas and agreements with partners, but it has already saved lives in two Search and Rescue operations of New Zealand RCC during trials. Meanwhile, French safety organization SHOM has gone on record to praise “an effective tool which constitutes a very clear improvement.”

As a technology company, of course, Inmarsat looks well beyond 2017 to make the satellite investments that ensure customers continue to choose our services, and these investments also have consequences for seafarer safety. Inmarsat continues to invest in the I-5 satellite constellation behind the launch of the Fleet Xpress service, for example, which has secured commitments from more than 10,000 vessels since its launch last year.

Naturally, during a shipping down-cycle, attention has focused on the ship efficiency and crew welfare benefits offered by the Fleet Xpress combination of high speed Ka-Band and reliable L-Band. However, the shipboard bandwidth on-demand and content pre-positioning available through Fleet Xpress also bring breakthrough safety gains. The service can enable telemedicine, where remote real-time intervention by a medical team using bandwidth on-demand could be a matter of life and death.

Again, Fleet Media services can include training content, at a time when computer-based training companies see online seafarer profiling as critical tools to better manage crew competence and career paths.

Inmarsat also sees safety and security as two sides of the same coin. Where SafetyNET and SafetyNET II are concerned, for example, the same messaging system used for safety is the source of International Maritime Bureau piracy incident reporting. In the Fleet Xpress context, we will address the rise of cybercrime through the launch a new United Threat Management (UTM) system before the end of 2017.

Surveys we have commissioned tell us that over 90% of seafarers have had no cyber security training at all, but around half have experienced a cyber security incident. Keeping ships safe today includes protecting the software they are running, but also protecting ships systems from the inadvertent introduction of malware. On one hand, then, the Inmarsat UTM system isolates compromised terminals onboard until the threat can be neutralised. On the other, Inmarsat is part of the new IACS joint working group, which is working towards a harmonised approach to cyber security, and is developing a new cyber training course in collaboration with the World Maritime University.

We are convinced that greater familiarity with security procedures will deliver improved safety at sea. Furthermore, the maritime industry has a responsibility to ensure that social media is a positive influence. Pre-emption provisions ensure that GMDSS always takes precedence over ‘chatter’ but, for young seafarers, social media is simply the medium for communication – and that goes for letting those at home know they are safe, or in trouble.

In 2001, I was the Chief Technology Officer for Station 12, at a time when telex lease lines were still considered the secure messaging route to the MRCC. That may sound like the stone age, but it has only been in the last 15 years since we as an industry shifted over to IPsec Tunnels.

My point is that enhancing safety at sea relies on a culture of continuous improvement which is forward-looking enough to take advantage of the latest technical developments, but flexible enough to carry an entire industry with it.

Even after a decade in service, for example, FleetBroadband usage is still growing, and plans are in place to extend its availability long into the future: the $600 million we have already committed to two I-6 satellites for the early part of the next decade will operate as Ka-band/L-band hybrids to support the Ka-band capability of the I-5 satellites, but also the FleetBroadband now offered via I-4 satellites.

Indeed, as far as the future of safety at sea is concerned, it's important that users don't believe newer solutions automatically displace tried and tested technologies. Inmarsat-C has been the backbone of GMDSS for 26 years and is onboard 160,000 ships: it is due to be migrated to I-4 satellites and, ultimately, it will also migrate to the I-6s.

Ronald Spithout is president of Inmarsat Maritime.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.