Standardization is Key to Unlocking Digitalization

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Published Dec 27, 2019 12:27 AM by The Maritime Executive

Digitalization still looms large on the horizon but it is standardization which will bring about the digital revolution, says Nabil Ben Soussia, Vice President – Maritime of IEC Telecom.

Standardization of software, sensors and other vessel operating systems would enable the majority of the technology on vessels around the globe to function using the same platforms – which would then be the catalyst that kick-starts rapid digitalization throughout the maritime sector, he explains. The same is true for the offshore oil and gas sector.

At present, vessels function using a wide variety of operating systems which are not compatible across the industry. In fact, some systems and sensors are not even compatible with others on the same vessel.

Consider how the mobile phone industry evolved from using a wide range of operating systems unique to each phone company, to widespread use across the industry of just a few key platforms – such as the Android system which is not based on the make of phone but standard across the industry and now very widely used.

So it is with the maritime sector. “At present there are a few large companies with big IT departments who are developing their own software,” says Soussia. “But this is for their own use and not something they currently wish to share across the industry. These companies are already on the digitalization journey, albeit that many are still proceeding at a cautious pace. For smaller companies with just one or two in-house IT staff this is not yet a possibility. 

“But there are already independent software companies, with no conflict of interest within the maritime world, which are working on large industry-wide solutions that will standardize operating systems 

“This market-ready solution will be the next ‘big thing’ for shipping. Once onboard systems and sensors and processes are compatible, all working from a single operating system, far more will be achievable. The data can be gathered, processed and compared across the vessel, the fleet and the industry. Systems will be able to talk to one another and procedures can be streamlined and harmonized.

“This is when digitalization will really take off! The technology will develop at a quicker pace and, with industry wide use, the economies of scale will make digitalization more affordable,” he explains.

IEC Telecom is currently installing smart systems onboard vessels which will enable ship operations to evolve at the pace each company can cope with. Soussia says: “Some companies install an antenna just because they want to use email onboard. However, having our solutions onboard means that greater benefits and options are available when the company is ready for them. Everyone’s journey towards digitalization is conducted at their own pace.”

Over the next few years, he predicts a greater use of “edge computing.” Edge computing is a popular middle-way between using isolating computer systems purely onboard and fully embracing cloud technology to access all data and systems via the cloud.

“Edge computing enables the vessel operator to decide what data and functionality is needed purely onboard the vessel and which data is transferable to the shore HQ. Using edge computing the Master has the benefits of connectivity but also has local control over the processes needed to control the vessel from onboard.”

OneGate, the newest solution from IEC Telecom, is helping vessel operators to understand this distinction. OneGate is a virtualized system which enables vessel processes and data to be accessed from onshore via a virtual dashboard facility. The solution is able to segregate systems and allocate bandwidth to keep critical vessel functions separate from social computer use.

“OneGate has enabled us to fully understand how ship sensors and systems operate and we have seen first-hand how some systems will not work on other software platforms, sometimes resulting in critical functions having to run off older software kept specially onboard just for this use,” says Soussia.

“Standardization of vessel software and operating systems is inevitable and long-awaited. I can foresee that, once this begins to happen, the true capabilities of digital shipping will be revealed.”

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