IT Solutions

maritime software

By Stephen L. Caldwell 2016-11-21 20:10:38

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2016 edition.)

In tough times, every dollar counts. Software programs that automate critical functions can help.

By Stephen Caldwell

With global economic growth down, commodity prices sinking, and shipping capacity and competition up, it’s more important than ever for maritime companies to control their costs in order to stay afloat. And maritime software is one of the most important tools they have to do so. Almost every aspect of maritime operations – from managing an entire fleet to evaluating an individual mariner – is undergoing a revolution designed to better measure activity, analyze data and optimize operations.

      It’s all part of the so-called “Internet of things” –  in this case the network of physical objects like ships, cranes, terminal buildings and the like, all embedded with electronic sensors and wireless connectivity to enable the collection and exchange of data. The goal? Better decisions and better results.

      As we move inexorably toward the paperless ship, or even the automated ship controlled from “the cloud,” what software is most important?

Fleet Management

Enterprise fleet management is the most complex software with applications ranging from voyage planning, port coordination and crew management to maintenance and repair, finance and insurance, and enterprise risk management. An example is BASSnet Fleet Management from BASS Software Limited, a Norway-based provider. BASS has a full suite of integrated fleet management systems and approvals from five of the most prestigious class societies.

      According to CEO Steiner Upsaker, such systems must be updated frequently in a holistic way to keep pace with a rapidly changing environment: “As shippers move to upgrade their IT capabilities in response to customer requests, those tied down to systems that are not integrated have not been able to synchronize different segments of their operations.”

      Similarly, ABS Nautical Systems recently updated its NS Enterprise software, representing its most comprehensive release in full marine enterprise planning in several years. NS6.4 includes, among other things, an automated and remote software installation. On the individual vessel level, ABS’s new NS Vessel Performance tool uses ship-specific modeling that monitors hull, propeller and main engine operations. According to ABS Nautical Systems’ Vice President Stephen Schwarz, “We take an innovative approach to vessel performance, and this solution delivers the industry’s most comprehensive performance management tool available.”

      Another offering comes from U.K.-based Marine Software Limited. Its Marine Planned Maintenance program consists of three major elements: a set of job routines with maintenance instructions for a particular task, a maintenance schedule with intervals as appropriate, and a record of previously conducted maintenance. Additional features include a defect-reporting module and Automatic Data Replication (to back up data) between ship and shore using the company’s MSLCloud service.

       MSL recently celebrated its 25th anniversary and prides itself on the simplicity of its Windows-based software. Says Mark Jennings, Operations Manager: “Tight operational schedules, fast vessel turnaround times and low financial margins dictate that maritime software systems be simple and inexpensive to give the operator any hope of getting a genuine return on IT investments.”

      Vessel pools are increasingly looking for software that will enable them to manage their operations effectively and, more importantly, attract new members. P.V. Venkatachalam (“Mr. Venkee”) of BSOL Systems, a relatively new India-based software provider, notes that “Smaller companies will address this market by pooling their ships to compete with bigger players. Our Pool Management system is uniquely positioned to meet this need.” In addition to managing the commercial operations of a pool, BSOL’s software allows all partners to access the system, creating a transparency that increases confidence among members.

Monitoring & Compliance

Environmental monitoring has its own niche software, and BASS CEO Upsaker believes that “As the heat on pollution grows worldwide, we can expect the regulations for protecting the environment to become constantly stricter. BASS has kept ahead of the tech trend with a solution that keeps ship managers fully compliant with current and upcoming requirements.” The BASSnet Environmental Management System automatically calculates emissions and energy efficiency during a voyage.

      Software is also helping meet changing regulatory requirements, such as the U.S. Coast Guard’s Subchapter M guidelines for workboats, and many towing companies are subscribing to software by Canada-based Helm Operations in an effort to comply with the new rules. Rodger Bannister, Vice President of Marketing, expects interest in flagship product Helm CONNECT to continue to grow because companies are constantly searching for systems that will help them get on top of these types of challenges.

      “We keep hearing that they want something that’s easy to use and closes the loop on compliance,” Bannister says. “That’s what Helm CONNECT is all about.” CONNECT Compliance includes applications for forms, documents, audits and corrective actions. Corrective actions are integrated and automatically tracked by the system so nothing falls through the cracks.

System Integration & Security

Integrating different systems is essential to the cost-cutting process. Some companies offer turn-key solutions, which are more suited for large, well-established firms. BSOL’s Venkee notes that “Much of the shipping industry is still working with Excel and home-grown smaller systems that need to be connected. We not only have products to offer but can integrate dissimilar systems with our services. We know that customers will have a variety of technologies built up over a period of time, and we will deliver what is appropriate for their needs.” For example, BSOL has integrated Dynamics AX with ABS Nautical Systems NS5 and Veson’s IMOS.

      Beyond systems integration, Venkee sees the future including data integration. Maritime stakeholders are handling larger and larger amounts of data, and “Analysts will be able to do better forecasts once they have detailed and historic marketing and pricing information. There will be more work on analytics and trends. BSOL will benefit from this by doing work on big data analytics to make use of the information gathered from our current systems.”

      But the “Internet of things” also has a dark side – the creation of new cyber vulnerabilities. As more and more software is embedded in engines, pumps, valves, signals, lighting and access controls – and as these systems are networked to remote shore side centers – the risk of potential cyber vulnerabilities for hackers and criminals to exploit grows exponentially.

      Recognizing the challenge, everyone from governments and international organizations to individual vessel operators are starting to address the issue of cyber security. The Coast Guard issued a Cyber Strategy last June, and the IMO approved Interim Guidelines on Maritime Cyber Risk Management in June of this year. The IMO guidelines follow the January 2016 effort by BIMCO and other members of the maritime roundtable to issue recommendations on cyber security aboard ships.

     Some software manufacturers are already meeting this challenge. GTMaritime, a leading U.K. provider, offers products that scan all email to ensure no viruses are sent to the vessel. Managing Director Rob Kenworthy says the new GTSentinel does more: “In addition to firewall and anti-virus functions, GTSentinel can help protect vessels against malware and automated dialers, offering real-time protection and system monitoring as well as scheduled scans. Updates are designed for efficiency and are perfect for low-bandwidth connections, utilizing local networking onboard.”

GPS Backup?

Many software systems – whether used for fleet management, maritime navigation, or even terminal crane operations – depend on GPS, adding another layer of vulnerability. GPS signals from satellites are weak and easily disrupted by criminals, hostile nation states, and even by solar weather. In January of this year the U.S. Coast Guard issued Safety Alert 01-16 warning mariners of such vulnerabilities.

      Now the race is on to create a GPS backup or substitute. At the forefront is the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation, headed by Captain Dana Goward, a retired senior executive from the Coast Guard. Goward explains that “Engineers developing maritime software, as well as other transportation system software, logically used GPS because it was highly precise and free. However, few mariners are aware that even their ‘backup’ navigation tools – such as gyro compasses, AIS, radars and digital radios – all have a GPS component and can fail if GPS is disrupted.”

      A bill currently moving through the U.S. Congress would require the Coast Guard to maintain a “reliable, land-based positioning, navigation and timing system to provide a complement to and backup for the Global Positioning System.” Goward says this would be a newer, more accurate and less expensive version of the old LORAN-C system, with the new one being called e-LORAN. He added it would be much harder to disrupt than GPS.

      Rather than the current situation, with almost exclusive dependence on GPS, the combination of GPS with e-LORAN would provide a much more robust infrastructure for maritime software to keep shipping efficient, safe and secure. – MarEx

Steve Caldwell is a member of the National Maritime Security Advisory Committee and a frequent contributor to The Maritime Executive.

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