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March 29, 2016

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Shipping: connected but not yet smarter?

The trouble with surveys is that they can leave the compiler, as well as the reader, with as many questions as answers. The Futurenautics Maritime Satellite Communications & Applications 2016 survey provides fascinating insights into demand trends in operational and crew communications – and also manages to illuminate some missing links.

Among its fundamental observations is there is little standing in the way of a more connected maritime industry from a technology point of view. Though the mindset of shipowners may be changing, not all the pieces are yet in place – and owners and crew have very different ideas of what the opportunity represents.

The research notes that newbuilds are routinely fitted with large numbers of equipment sensors, and with retrofits increasingly affordable, it is conceivable that a vessel could generate up to 60GB of operational data per day.

Such figures make it easy to see why some operators feel overwhelmed, but in fact shipping is in a good position to reduce the amount of data which needs to be transmitted ashore if it adopts an ‘fog computing’ approach that rolls processing to the edges of the network.

As more equipment on board begins to generate data, more processing can take place on board, a trend that runs alongside and supports greater automation and autonomy. So rather than herald a data flood, the rise of Smart Ships might actually see the amount of data it will be necessary to transmit fall dramatically, bringing it well within manageable levels, Futurenautics finds.

VSAT solutions were present in 57% of the fleets surveyed, making them the second most common satellite solution fitted in the commercial maritime sector. And where VSAT is installed it is used exclusively as the primary data solution onboard.

Respondents overwhelmingly thought that VSAT and next generation HTS VSAT solutions such as Intelsat EPIC and Inmarsat GX would be the most suitable solution for their fleet’s future data requirements. This represents a significant shift in perception among operators, with much deeper acceptance of VSAT and HTS services by all sectors of the maritime market.

One of the more significant findings is that crew welfare, so frequently cited in the past as a primary reason for installing VSAT, was identified by just three percent of respondents as the most important reason for adoption. This is in stark contrast to the requirements of crew, 72% of whom said that the level of connectivity provided on board was a factor in choosing which ship operator they worked for.

Of that figure, 78% said that it was a strong, or very strong influence on which contract they decided to take. As the bring your own device phenomenon expands from shore to sea, crew are on average taking three devices onboard, the most popular being smartphones, laptops and external hard drives.

And the contradictions continue. Internet access is still the most demanded service with 73% of respondents believing that adequate crew internet service could only be achieved with bandwidth of 512kbps or above which puts it into the VSAT domain. However the service most wanted by crew is not at sea at all, but rather free in-port Wi-Fi.

In the current markets it seems, owners are all about business, though the way they are approaching their operations appears to be less about long term strategy and more about short term tactics.

Operational efficiency was cited as the most important reason for choosing a particular communications solution, for the first time more important than cost reduction – though it could be argued that the former drives and should result in the latter. Nonetheless, Futurenautics observes an important shift in mindset, from a focus on solutions fitted to reduce cost to ones that are perceived as delivering value across the business and driving competitive advantage.

Among applications singled out for most significant growth over the next three years are Navigation and IT as well as Engineering and Crew/Training applications. The most widely deployed navigation applications in three years will be ECDIS, Back of Bridge systems, e-Publications, weather routing and navigation data collection. Data/cyber-security, remote IT diagnostics and network optimisation solutions will be the most commonly deployed IT/Networking applications in three years.

Regulatory compliance will be a driver for deployment of engineering applications, specifically emissions monitoring. Gathering and analysis of main engine sensor data should naturally lead to adoption of more condition-based and predictive maintenance. Growth in crew application deployment will be focussed on online training as well as content services.

The survey also asked respondents to identify the proportion of data use associated with different operational areas and how this might grow over the next two to three years. Responses showed that vessel operations are currently perceived to be the most data intensive application, however only by a very small margin over crew welfare, which demonstrates the volume of traffic allocated to crew connectivity – despite the apparent change in emphasis noted by operators.

Despite the finding that operational efficiency is the most important factor for fitting satellite infrastructure, crew welfare was the only operational area that ship operators expected to see a significant growth in data over the period. In most other operational areas; navigation, maintenance, commercial and regulatory; bandwidth consumption showed limited growth and in some cases slight contraction.

Despite this, ship operators believe on average that ship-to-shore data traffic will increase by nearly 25% in the next 12 months and by nearly 60% over the next two to three years, with the figures for shore-to-ship data increases similar in magnitude.

This finding doesn’t indicate a clear strategic approach on the part of ship operators towards the increasing availability of operational data available to them, nor using satellite bandwidth to extract insight, value and competitive advantage from it.

Instead, Futurenautics points out the contrast to the finding that suggests there will be little or no predicted increase in data traffic across a number of specific application areas. This, it concludes, indicates that predicted data growth is not being driven by a strategic IT/data plan within the organisations based on the implementation of new applications, but rather is the result of uncontrolled, organic growth.

Or in other words, shipping might be more connected, but so far at least it is not much smarter.

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