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Competing for Data

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By Paul Benecki 2019-06-19 16:22:00

As connectivity at sea becomes more common, opportunities for new applications and business models are proliferating. Nor-Shipping 2019 showcased an increasingly competitive market for ship data services, with half a dozen vendors offering comprehensive platforms for transmission, storage and analysis. Many of these firms are from adjacent spaces, and their new services are bundled in ways that overlap traditional industry lines. It appears that previous forecasts for single-vendor, all-inclusive data services - VSAT packaged with e-navigation, cybersecurity, IoT, cloud services, vessel performance management and remote monitoring - are coming closer to reality. 

More satcom options

A new wave of communications satellite operators will enter into service in the next few years, bringing more competition to the maritime broadband market. Newcomers Starlink and OneWeb are building low earth orbit and medium earth orbit (LEO / MEO) networks to compete with the existing geostationary orbit (GEO) constellations operated by Intelsat, JSAT and Inmarsat. 

According to Frank August, director of maritime for OneWeb, the new low earth orbit satellite constellations aren't necessarily going to disrupt the satcom market; rather, they will give shipowners an additional option for high speed connectivity to augment existing coverage. OneWeb is planning to distribute through the same retail satcom providers which have always served the maritime industry, keeping existing sales and service channels intact.

LEO satcom services will have lots of bandwidth, but they will also have low latency: as the satellites are in a lower orbit, it takes less time for a signal to reach the satellite. This matters for videoconferencing and web browsing, where long time gaps degrade the user experience. For any future autonomous or remotely-controlled vessels, lower latency also means safety, since there is a shorter delay in the information flow between the ship and shoreside control. 

Marlink, the leading retailer of satcom services for the maritime industry, doesn't expect its business to be disrupted by the new constellation operators. According to Tore Morten Olsen, Marlink's president of maritime, the demand for high-bandwidth service is only going to rise as cost per megabyte goes down - especially for crew welfare uses. "Once crewmembers experience a few months aboard a vessel with fast internet, they don't want to go back," Olsen says. "Ship managers are finding that they need to have broadband service in order to retain their best seafarers."

Intellian, which makes satcom terminals for broadband services, doesn't expect disruption either. It is already working with OneWeb on antenna designs, and its next generation of terminals can all be modified to work with future LEO satellite constellations. "All of our products moving forward have the capability of being Ku-band / Ka-band frequency agnostic as well as constellation agnostic, whether it's a fixed geostationary satellite or a LEO or MEO moving satellite," says Intellian VP of marketing Paul Comyns. "That secures future-proof capability for all purchasers, so they know that the antenna that is going on board tomorrow can be converted later when the new constellations come online." 

Using a LEO service will require having two antennas on board - one to track the next moving satellite as the one in the ship's view passes towards the horizon - but according to OneWeb's Frank August, demand for the terminals will be high enough to create economies of scale in manufacturing (and a lower price per terminal). 

Value-added services

As VSAT becomes commoditized, the service bundle - whether for crew welfare, ship data, cybersecurity or other purposes - is an important way for each satcom provider to differentiate itself from the competition. As a recent example, Inmarsat has added a new IoT package called Fleet Data, a service that allows data from onboard sensor applications to be sent over dedicated bandwidth; it comes bundled with cloud-based data storage and data analysis tools for the ship manager.

Satcom operators are also finding new, nontraditional customers by segregating bandwidth and billing. Both Inmarsat and KVH are creating service packages that enable OEMs to remotely monitor shipboard equipment without charging the ship operator for the connectivity. With these services, the OEM uses a satcom connection to get sensor data from the engine, boiler, scrubber or any other equipment they've installed on the ship; the OEM, not the shipowner, pays for the bandwidth used. KVH's service, KVH Watch, comes with its own dedicated satcom terminal. 

A regular data stream could help OEMs sort through warranty and service issues, but it could also open up new business models for equipment ownership. Inmarsat foresees a future in which OEMs could keep such close tabs on engines and other mission-critical gear that they could offer uptime as a service, much as Rolls Royce offers "power as a service" for jet turbine engines. The shipowner would pay the OEM by the hour for the machine's operation, and the OEM would own it and service it. Inmarsat is trialing the underlying technology with Hyundai Heavy Industries' service division, Hyundai Global Service (HGS), providing digital IoT monitoring for three ships using dedicated bandwidth. Since Hyundai Group supplies machinery for HHI newbuilds, onboard equipment monitoring dovetails well with Hyundai's broader business, according to Ronald Spithout, President, Inmarsat Maritime. 

IoT goes big

Just about every major marine electronics vendor is looking to offer a common platform for ship data collection, storage and analysis. Last week, Kongsberg announced Kognifai Vessel Insight, a package is designed to make it as easy as possible to get IoT data off the ship. A single crew-installed box collects information and transfers it to the satellite terminal (or, through a new partnership, to a KVH Watch dedicated IoT terminal), which sends it to a cloud storage platform. Kongsberg says that it has figured out how to quickly contextualize and parse data streams from all sorts of shipboard equipment, making it easier to make sense of the reams of data. Vessel Insight comes with an ecosystem of third-party data services, and it can communicate with DNV GL's Veracity ship data platform for access to additional analytical tools. 

Danelec offers a competing service based on the protocol used to transmit VDR data to shore, and says that it can do it with less than one megabyte of data transfer and one dollar of satcom cost per day. Like Kongsberg's solution, the DanelecConnect system uses a small onboard interface box to collect up ship data, process it, package it, and route it to the ship's satellite terminal for transfer to a shore-based cloud storage / analysis platform. (Inmarsat's Fleet Data service uses this platform under a partnership agreement.) Danelec recently rolled out a bridge monitoring system that uses this data to alert ship managers to navigational deviations in real time - a common practice in aviation, where it is known as Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA). “The airline industry employs FOQA very extensively, and pilots use it as a proactive learning tool,” says Hans Ottosen, CEO of Danelec Marine. “Our ambition is to bring this same option to ship officers.” 

Both of these products come with access to a cloud data platform with third-party applications and services for the shipowner. Bridge systems company Northrop Grumman Sperry Marine plans an application ecosystem as well, but its offerings will be focused on the needs of navigators and assisting shore-based teams. Michiel Meijer, the head of digital transformation for Sperry Marine, says that its strategy is centered on making the navigator 's job easier, with a secure digital collaboration platform and a suite of applications that address their needs – from safe navigation, regulatory compliance, vessel performance and risk mitigation to remote maintenance and remote access. The platform is securely connected to the front of the bridge, which should eliminate the need to shuttle back and forth with a USB thumb drive every time the charts have to be updated or a new route is laid out. 

"The next step is opening up our smart integrated bridge systems to other IoT domains, outside of navigation, and to enable better connectivity between the bridge and shoreside staff," Meijer says. Shoreside vessel operations centers will benefit from being able to see a duplicate picture of the platform, including bridge system displays. 

Wärtsilä, which competes with Sperry and Kongsberg in the bridge electronics market, recently announced a comprehensive package of navigation tools to streamline route planning and give the home office a better view into what happens on the bridge. It incorporates AI-driven route planning, weather optimization, hazard identification, automatic chart updating, remote monitoring and navigation event recording (built in part by its recently-acquired Transas division). "We now fully automate the whole process, and we have the option to do the satcom hardware with the package," says Torsten Buessow, managing director of Wärtsilä's Transas business unit. "We are offering satcom plus ECDIS plus charts plus software plus onshore dashboards, everything at one flat fee per month."

Gathering the data 

For many vessels - especially complex, high-value ships - it's a challenge to get sensor data into one place in order to get it off the ship. Since ships are made of steel, off-the-shelf radio protocols like WiFi don't work well in the interior; traditional solutions for connecting up outlying sensors generally rely on running cable, which is expensive. ScanReach, a startup based in Norway, says that it has a cost-effective answer. Its system uses tiny radiotransmitters scattered throughout the vessel to quickly set up a "mesh" of connective data coverage reaching into every compartment of interest. 

With optional wrist- or ankle-worn transmitter bracelets, officers can also use the network to track their crew throughout the ship in real time, allowing them to quickly locate personnel in the event of an emergency. The bracelet unit has a built-in accelerometer to detect trip-and-falls or man-overboard situations, and the next-generation version will have a "panic" button that crewmembers will be able to use to alert the bridge if something goes wrong, according to CEO John Roger Nesje.

Abundance of choices

As with any new market, the emerging vessel data space brings new questions: Who will own the data if an OEM is paying for its collection? Will each e-platform be interoperable with another, or will a shipowner's data be technologically "locked in" to one service? Will ship data services be adequately secured against cyberattack? Will one data platform come to dominate the space, like Amazon in e-commerce or Google in search? For now, one thing is certain: if a vendor handles ship data, whether they are a class society or electronics manufacturer or satellite operator, they are likely planning a comprehensive data service, and shipowners will have no shortage of options.

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