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October 20, 2014

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Who should control the internet of things?

Shipping and what could be called the ‘real world’ only rarely come into the same orbit at the same time. But this alignment appears to be taking place as both land-based and maritime industries seek to create standards for the technology that will dominate both in the coming decades.

A recent article in the Financial Times noted that both technology and telecoms companies were racing to build the infrastructure that would connect billions of devices at home and work.

With the number of these devices growing fast and the potential of machine to machine (M2M) communications becoming ever greater, Ovum analyst Matthew Howett told the FT “fragmentation and a lack of technology standards could provide the biggest opportunity for telecoms operators in an industry already changing how people live”.

An aggregator that can link devices could scoop a big chunk of a market that Gartner predicts could be worth $300bn by 2020, and Cisco predicts could see 50 billion connected devices by 2050.

No-one, or at least, no-one who has looked at the Baltic Dry Index lately, should imagine that shipping is set for a similar bonanza, but it is clear that a similar revolution is taking place here. As owners attempt to save fuel and other operating costs and increase vessel efficiency, the increased use of sensor technology, reporting and data analysis is the next big thing – and perhaps the difference between success and failure.

And the same argument applies: if big data and M2M communications are to play a critical role shouldn’t there be data standards that foster the development of these technologies? Some would argue that the IMO’s e-Navigation project is designed to do just that, but others demure.

Kyle Hurst, Director of Channel Development at satellite communications provider Station 711 believes that if the industry is to avoid ‘another ECDIS’ then there is a need to influence policy, standards, laws, procedures and the design of systems that collect transmit and use vessel data. At the recent DigitalShip Singapore event he hosted a panel of owners, data collectors and service providers to discuss the issues and challenges facing what is known as the Maritime Data Optimisation Initiative, or MDOI.

It sounds like the grandest of plans but as Hurst points out, if the core functionality of ECDIS had been standardised, it wouldn’t have created the need for the S-Mode concept pushed by the Nautical Institute.

“If you are not going to set the framework for basic standards with manufacturers, then the industry can’t expect anything,” he observed. The initial aim of the MDOI is to bring together the industry to work together on influencing how the use of vessel data can support the industry.

As one participant pointed out, there must be an element of shoot first then declare what you are aiming for, but as Ninad Mhatre, Head of Commercial Operations, Rickmers Shipmanagement pointed out, managers are long embarked on the collection process.

The in-house Rickmers data module began as a ship reporting system and has become a database for analysing vessel information in a single platform. Rickmers has a dedicated energy efficiency team that analyses the data and creates baselines.

“The information they provide is particularly useful in joint initiatives with our charterers such as Maersk Line, Hanjin, MOL and CMA CGM,” he said. “These are high profile operators on a very tight budget that like it when owners give them fuel savings and without that data would not be able to do that”

Noel Jelsma, Regional Director APAC for optimisation specialist Eniram agreed there was a need to raise data to a higher level within the company than just operations. Data that is not visible to senior management has “no real value in terms of optimising human performance. There is so much the data can do if it gets to the right level”.

He also pointed out that for many customers the primary objective of data gathering was not necessarily to save fuel. It was as likely to be ensuring the efficient operation of cargo plant or other internal efficiencies.

Standards are an issue – especially if the task is supplying owners and managers. Sinwa Singapore Group Director of Sales and Marketing Peter Schellenberger described a nightmare scenario of highly divergent levels of technical competence, connectivity and procedures that belong to the 19th century.

“Some vessels have broadband and others say no email must be bigger than 20k, so it can be hard to introduce measures across a whole fleet,” he said. There is a willingness to invest, but there should be a minimum technical standard valid for all fleets. “There are still physical documents being rubber stamped when goods are received onboard ship. Why not agree that a phone camera with a 100k image is acceptable as proof of delivery?”

Such procedures are many miles from the internet of things but Schellenberger said the ‘dinosaur industry’ had finally realised things had to change. “Rates are not getting better and costs have been squeezed out so now there is a willingness to look at doing things differently – for the first time in some cases – and a chance to start thinking of real change and adaptations.”

Jelsma agreed, noting that data collected by Eniram systems was in a number of cases exported back to the customer’s ERP system or in-house database. As industry matures and more and more data is collected, he said there would be a greater need for innovation in technology even as data becomes more standardised.

“The data collection layer will become commoditised; it will become a standard feature on newbuildings. What we need to avoid is a Tower of Babel effect where every yard and ship has its own protocols and it is hard to integrate them,” he said.

“The toolset layer is a separate issue but we are a long way from standard data formats, in fact we are horribly fragmented. Conventional wisdom says in any market you might have five major vendors, of which three will make money and two go bust. In shipping there are 20 or 40 vendors, so there is going to be consolidation before we get standardisation.”

And what about the vital link in the chain – the actual users onboard ship? Often the last to be consulted but arguably those for whom the greatest pressure could be applied – are they ready for the apps the boffin are developing?

At least one classification society is providing crew training to help them first measure and then manage fuel consumption and efficiency to derive better quality data and others will likely follow suit. Rickmers for one gives familiarisation training to crew before they get onboard and also tasks its crew service providers with formal training of specific functionality, with senior officers receiving classroom and crews e-learning.

So better data and more of it, with greater focus and the training to back it up. It sounds like the industry is on a path to grasping the big data challenge. But does it matter who owns the data? After all in personal life the lesson of what data and metadata are worth has been learned the hard way.

There are parallel efforts – by Intermanager and class society ABS’s Mariner Safety Project – that provide sanitised data that allow comparisons on operational and safety indicators that protect the anonymity of those contributing the data. Something similar is needed here.

Rickmers’ arrangement with its systems provider Interschalt specifies that data can and should be shared across vessels and has no one specific owner. “Some data should definitely be shared for the greater good of the industry,” suggested Capt Mhatre.

Peter Schellenberger concluded with an analogy to software and the open source concept. There is a need he said, to find the cleverest brains and bring them together. “We have a tendency to be protective in our industry, but there is a limit to how much risk comes from what people can find out.” And arguably the rewards will be far greater.

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