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Maritime ICT: a new wave of technology

From real-time cargo tracking to crew and passenger management applications, Windows-based radar to floating data centres, ocean-going vessels are increasingly taking on-board the benefits of ICT.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the maritime industry would be one of the most advanced users of information and communications technology. Navigation,'logistics, efficiency - these are all crucial to the sector, and very much the domain of ICT. But step aboard the average ocean-going vessel and you're likely to see computing equipment that many landlubbers would consider decidedly behind the curve.

Maritime environments are not only life-critical, but they are also largely autonomous. Vessels of many kinds will be offshore for months at a time, and in many cases, such as on cargo ships, they will be staffed with a skeleton crew. They cannot afford for the equipment to go wrong.

Ocean-borne captains cannot afford to risk equipment that isn't thoroughly proven, which is why many environments will still favour traditional RS-232-connected cables systems instead of more up-to-date Ethernet-based networks. TCP/IP has only become mainstream since the turn of the decade; many on-board ship computers (where they exist at all) are still running past-generation iterations of MS Windows.

The other challenge for proponents of maritime ICT is that the most clearly-recognised field of practice - marine electronics - is largely descended from marine engineering. Marine ICT is still barely studied, says Arnaud Disant, who teaches a course in the subject at the National Maritime College of Ireland. The closest many marine electronics courses will get to computing is GPS, he asserts: "This is different to programming and operating systems that you can alter. That is why I draw the line between marine electronics and marine IT. The latter is relatively unknown."

There are several aspects to emerging ICT environments as applied to the maritime sector. Let's take a look...

Satellite communications

Getting data from ship to shore and back is still no mean feat, even after a century of doing it. Several years ago, satellite services for vessels at sea were relatively difficult to come by, because satellite operators did not always see the value in the prevailing business model. Vessels would often have to rely on spill-over services from satellite beams designed for land-based services. Things have changed. There are two broad service categories for maritime: Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) and Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT).

MSS is offered by the likes of Inmarsat and Iridium, and offer volume-based charging. Their bandwidth is relatively constrained, at maximums of around half a Mb/s. Their advantages are ease of installation and, in Iridium's case, coverage all the way to the poles (which may well be useful as summer ice continues to melt, and the North-West Passage opens up new opportunities for commercial shipping).

Whereas MSS terminals are typically mobile, VSAT requires the installation of more permanent equipment. The installation costs are higher generally, but it does provide always-on connectivity designed to encourage more constant use, rather than the piecemeal communications typical of MSS. It also offers more bandwidth, extending up to 4Mb/s. For vessels that restrict communications to the bare essentials, MSS can prove a cheaper option. However, for vessels with heavier communications needs, such as cruise ships, or oil and gas rigs, VSAT is often preferable.

VSAT is purchased for a variety of reasons, depending on the nature of the vessel. Crew welfare is a particularly important issue. Sourcing crew has been a chronic problem for logistics, fishing, and other vessel types. Providing the facility to call home, exchange email, or even check social media websites, can help to attract crew members to uncomfortable - and sometimes dangerous - employment at sea.

Cruise ships are also in a position to profit from the use of VSAT, because they can offer it as a value-added service for customers; and they can offer it internally to third-party retailers installed on the ship who need to resolve credit card transactions.

"Hopefully cruisers are making money on it," says Disant, "but fishermen, transport logistic, 'yachties', and other sea workers have to bear the integral cost."

Communications options

There are other options for ship-to-shore communications. Offshore oil and gas rigs can sometimes take advantage of microwave links to connect them to the shore, obviating the need to use satellite network services. Some companies are also building pioneering ship-to-shore Wi-Fi communications.

MTN, which provides communications systems for cruise ships, is building out these facilities, which will enable vessels to offload large amounts of data when in range of the shore. SeaFi, promoted by Disant's firm Sea-Tech, is another.

High-gain antennas on ships and shore can get high-bandwidth signals some 15 miles out to sea. This, combined with caching and compression technologies, can again deliver enhanced data services.

Cargo tracking

Some cargo is, naturally, extremely valuable. Its owners want to know where it is - and its status - at all times. They may want to ensure that valuable equipment has not been stolen or lost, or might want to check on the status of perishables. This is a real requirement for anyone with a need to transport cargo overseas, and those running the cargo ships that enable them to do it.

Constant cargo monitoring requires the use of sensors placed on containers.

One service provider, Globe Tracker, produces these sensors, designed to be placed inside the units, and linked to communications antennas. These antennas are in turn linked to receivers positioned around the vessel.

The sensors register the location of the container, along with other environmental variables, and they then communicate the data to the receivers. The receivers can then send that information via local Wi-Fi to a central data aggregation system on the vessel, and from there it can be returned to the client's tracking system in one of two ways. It can either be sent directly from the vessel for instant updates, or it can be sent when the vessel docks. In this instance, it is offloaded via a Vodafone cellular link and sent terrestrially.

The sensors register the location of the container, along with other environmental variables, and they then communicate the data to the receivers. The receivers can then send that information via Wi-Fi to a central system on the vessel, and from there it can be returned to the client's tracking system via the ship's satellite link. Working with Vodafone, Globe Tracker also installs cellular links as SIM cards in some containers, enabling clients to continue tracking the device after they hit land.

The data gathered by the ship is normally sent via satellite link, says Jim Davis, CEO of tracking and monitoring solutions provider Globe Tracker, and the devices are configured to use as little of it as possible. Each 'ping', when a device sends data via the ship's on-board satellite system to the client's servers onshore, is just 128'bytes in size. This contains as much information as the device can gather about the environment, the status of the goods, and the location of the vessel.

Typically, data is sent hourly. For 10,000 containers (the maximum number of 20ft containers on a very large vessel is around 15,000), each 'ping' would represent 1.25MB of information. By VSAT standards, that is minimal, if customers are requesting it hourly.

Containers are stacked closely together, which can make communications difficult. The antennas operate at high frequencies designed to penetrate through high-density arrangements of metal, although as Globe Tracker's Davis says, there are limits to the laws of physics.

The designers had to find a careful balance between the necessary transmission power, and the energy available in the battery-powered devices. "You have to start with an amount of energy, and then manage it through sophisticated intelligence in the unit itself," he says. The device is programmed to know when it should give up on trying to find sufficient GPS signals to locate itself, for example," Davis explains. "It will then calculate the energy necessary to lock on to the signals, the probability of getting that information, and the value of having it. The longer you don't get a GPS signal, the higher the value is."

Radar

Marine radar systems now offer far more than the glowing green circular displays of yesteryear. The marine radar displays built into integrated bridge systems will show a variety of data inputs, including radar, sonar, weather, and satellite imagery. The systems required to collate and display this data require relatively high levels of computing power. Some can run on Microsoft Windows-based PCs - not always to their operators' liking. "You have some people on the water that have been trying to avoid computers for years," reports Disant, "and now they have to deal with it."

Radar is changing again. International Maritime Organisation (IMO) radar performance standard MSC 192(79) imposed new performance standards for ship-borne radar for all radar equipment installed after'1'July 2008. These requirements included improved target detection in rain and sea 'clutter'. Solid-state (broadband) radar is starting to be adopted to enable vessels to 'see' better. This radar technology abandons the magnetrons used by traditional radar, which send out a powerful microwave signal and then switch their internal circuitry to detect it bouncing back. Instead, solid-state radar uses two amplifiers, one of which is constantly sending and the other constantly listening. The advantages of solid-state radar include smaller target detection, especially at close range, as magnetron-based radar are often relatively blind to close-range targets.

In a marine environment, this capability can be particularly advantageous. Not only does it make navigation easier in dark conditions and poor weather, but it can also help to detect possible piratical vessels. Pirate craft are often very small and low to the sea, making them hard for conventional radar to spot: solid-state radar has a much better chance of providing an early warning.

Environmental considerations

Ships can prove hostile places for sensitive and complex ICT systems. They are usually infiltrated by briny atmospheres, and lots of moisture in various states. Keeping the salt and moisture out is possible; but it is also expensive. Ships are also often space-constrained, which makes it difficult for ICT designers to fit all of the necessary equipment into one space. In many cases, it must be extra-protected to ensure that it operates correctly. This does not mean, though, that the equipment itself cannot be commercial off-the-shelf kit. Often, simple generic servers will be used to run software, for example.

Given the main hazard in a marine environment - water - there are two important standard designations. These are part of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) Ingress Protection (IP) Standard 60529, and they are IP56 and IP58. The first digit of the number describes the level of protection against solid objects; the second describes the level of protection against water. IP56describes splash-proof protection. IP58 describes submersion protection.

There are also anti-vibration mechanisms designed to secure servers and other even more delicate equipment (such as the gyros that help the ship understand where it is going). "Vibration is the number one issue. Ships vibrate all the time when they are sailing, for different reasons," explains Teppo Henttonen, solutions manager at uninterruptible power supply vendor Eaton. The motion of the waves outside crashing against the hull, and the vibration of the drive engines, are two main causes, Henttonen says, "So we need to supply the equipment with vibration absorbers." Safety is also a key environmental issue affecting ICT design at sea. One little-known fact is that ship designers love to use fibre-optic cable because it's easier to make fire resistant, which can keep communications going in the event of an on-board conflagration.

Crew management

The management of crew on-board vessels has become more stringent in recent years. In 2006, the International Labour Organization (ILO) passed the Maritime Labour Convention, that asserted strict working conditions for people working at sea. "It has becoming more critical for operators to show that they're compliant with the rules. It can't just be a handwritten time sheet. It has to be a [computerised] system," says Dan Endersby, VP Global Business at shipping software services company C-MAR Group. "There is lots more red tape."

This administration must be conducted on any vessel trading internationally and weighing over 500 tonnes. Typically, crew-management systems will use a central server that collects data from computers around the vessel. The captain manages work and rest hours, and to maintain the conditions for vessel certification. This data is also being replicated far more with on-shore systems, typically via VSAT links. Vessel monitoring

These days there can be hundreds of sensors on an ocean-going vessel, including everything from the various parts of the engine through to the gyro, and the weather data. A lot of this information is collected and documented in the standard black box voice and data recorder, which is heavily sealed and fireproofed, and designed to be collected in the event of a ship sinking.

Accident investigators are already hunting for this following the most recent Genoa disaster this week. All of this data must be collected, and it is often done so using antiquated, pre-TCP/IP standards. Although now other systems (such as IP cameras) are starting to be introduced that make it easier to communicate information around the ship.

As more sensors are placed aboard vessels and used to keep track of conditions, ship-to-shore communications are becoming increasingly important. Data is increasingly being collected and transmitted back to the manufacturer for shoreside analysis, as more computing power and expertise is available there. The manufacturer can then contact the crew, to indicate whether the equipment needs any maintenance or reconfiguration. "You could say that the crew has taken on a more supervisory role in understanding how the data is being collected and transmitted," says Endersby. "Crews have become a lot savvier in their knowledge of data collection instead of just being mechanical engineers taking an engine apart." Some vessels have highly sophisticated monitoring technologies. The Maltese Falcon is a yacht built for venture capitalist Tom Perkins that features a unique mast system called DynaRig. Fibre-optic cables have been embedded into the carbon fibre masts for strain monitoring purposes. Data from the cables indicating how much strain they are under is transmitted to a computer system on the bridge so that the captain can keep tabs on the mast load.

The pace of ICT development in the marine sector will be limited by the willingness of conservative users to deploy it, and by the business model. After all, even the most exciting technological developments need a return on investment. The UK government is helping, though. The UK's Technology Strategy Board is investing '8m in a competition for projects that will enhance the efficiency of maritime vessels. ICT is a key part of that project.

The biggest trends for marine ICT in the near future are likely to include the greater rollout of VSAT technologies for ship-to-shore communications, and the spread of more modern IP-based devices on board, as vessels become more integrated. More advanced systems could mean real-time locational feeds that inform commodities price changes based on real-time analysis of the quantity of a given material that's in oceanic transit. The line between ship and shoreside premises will blur as data passes more freely between the two. So we are on course towards a fully-connected maritime environment.

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