Towards Smart Ships: Offshore and Maritime Communication Comes of Age
For more than thirty years, the way we live, work, collaborate and communicate has been revolutionized by digital technology of one kind or another. From data capture to content delivery, from desktop to mobile, the pace of the world has increased at an exponential rate, fueled by gigantic leaps in technological innovation and the creative solutions those advances have inspired and informed. It has been a rapid and successful transformation. On land.
The oceans, however, have remained stuck in an effectively pre-digital age. Huge cargo ships that carry containers of mobile phones for weeks on end are less connected than the first minutes of handset registration and set-up by their onshore customers. The irony of a ship load of Wi-Fi boosters and 4G smartphones not being able to get a useful signal is rich. The maritime sector has been left behind.
When vessel and fleet owners need to address this huge gap between land and sea communications, the nature of the maritime business demands a global approach. Maritime connectivity is extraordinarily complex and calls for a broad range of competencies and resources. Radio, satellite, cell and wi-fi planning, installation and maintenance on the hardware side; software, cybersecurity, programming, customer data encryption and data transport protocol on the digital side. Bridging the gaps between the two calls for both robust project management competence and technical support. While maritime industry professionals often bemoan the ‘digital divide’ that exists between ship and shore, it is not the only gap that needs to be addressed in maritime communications.
One of the most important aspects of maritime connectivity – and one that is already revolutionizing offshore operations – is the growing use of the Internet of Things (IoT). You would be forgiven for thinking that IoT was all about smart home devices; light bulbs, smart heating appliances, security and internet-aware fridges that order food for you are the promises that fill the glossy pages of consumer magazines. IoT, however, is about many different forms of remote automation and control, and shipping is no exception. Almost every meter, instrument and control you can observe and interact with on the bridge of a ship can also be routed to shore and its data mined for analysis, troubleshooting and maintenance. Commands can be sent the other way to entire fleets to fine-tune connected systems, to trim away inefficiencies and make ships safer for the crew, the investors and the planet. With the ‘traditional’ way of solving these problems necessitating huge inefficiencies, logistical, travel and environmental costs, the potential for sustainable savings is huge.
Late last year, Telenor Maritime acquired the Finnish military and marine communications specialist, KNL Networks. KNL have developed a revolutionary, global IoT network with built-in military-grade security. KNL have devised a way to integrate into any 3rd party equipment on board and to send and receive IoT data by high frequency radio with a range of up to 10,000 km. The new technology, reassuringly based on tech that any mariner will be familiar with, is a gamechanger for maritime IoT. It finally connects a fleet in real time with its technicians, analysts and other experts onshore.
Telenor Maritime was founded in 2002, is owned by Telenor ASA, Norway’s second largest company and is one of the world’s top ten global mobile operators, with over 200 million subscribers. The company is driven by an ambition to deliver the same quality of mobile service at sea as on land. KNL Networks’ IoT technology expands on their ability to offer comprehensive digital solutions. One of the strengths of KNL’s new network is a dedication to IoT connectivity that is likely to continue in the future.
Telenor’s ambitions center around their Maritime Connectivity Platform (TMCP), a solution that combines multiple back-haul sources into a single powerful hub of connectivity. Those back-haul bearers include just about every reliable wireless communications network ever used for data. From 4G/LTE mobile broadband and satellite to microwave radio link.
The aim of TMCP is to balance availability, speed, cybersecurity and cost to the absolute optimum. Employing technologies like network separation, firewall, filtering, tunneling, traffic steering and switching, link bundling and load balancing ensure data can be routed over several bearers in an optimal fashion. Priorities can be set for different forms of traffic by the vessel owner and bandwidth is saved by compression and TCP acceleration.
The beauty of TMCP is that it is completely scalable from a single ship to an entire fleet and KNL’s IoT solution is just as versatile. The concept is of a completely dedicated, secure and affordable network for ship-to-shore IoT integration. With no up-front capital expenditure and a sustainable and simple per-ship subscription model which, like TMCP, has scalability, reliability and sustainability as its guiding principles.
Those principles are centered around the complex set of demands at the heart of any maritime connectivity solution. With Telenor’s scalable, modular solutions, all maritime and offshore communication needs can be addressed. Whether it’s the state-of-the-art 5G solution that Telenor is introducing to the offshore industry this year, or the aggressively cost-driven, radio-based solution for chartered vessels, Telenor can build a cost-effective, bespoke, reliable and high-performance system for all marine communications demands.
So, although far from land and facing logistical obstacles, productivity gains can be enabled through innovation. With proven solutions and services that mitigate the challenges, the industry is now well-placed to use digitized solutions, make data-driven decisions, improve efficiency, gain competitive advantage, and work towards a greener, more sustainable future. Telenor’s acquisition of KNL will do much to make that happen.
For more information on affordable, low-risk compatible solutions for aligning instrument, sensor and telemetry data between ship and shore in real-time, see Telenor Maritime’s website.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.