The Connected ship and digitalisation

VSAT – a proven but not yet preferred technology

by Gillian Lovering

In its Certainty in an Uncertain World whitepaper on VSAT published last year, Inmarsat concluded, “It is probably too early to say that VSAT is a commodity, but it is beginning to be widespread enough for users to understand that there are major differences between what low cost and high-end services will give them, particularly when it comes to value-added services”.

Determining exactly how many ships are equipped with VSAT is not easy, but in May 2020 Euroconsult a consulting firm specialising in space markets suggested 28,200 ships had VSAT connectivity at 2019 year-end and forecast this to grow to 40,600 by 2023 compared to pre-pandemic projected growth to 49,300 VSAT connected ships. That number will include private yachts, research vessels, fishing vessels and others beside the merchant sector so it can be inferred that only a minority of merchants ships will be VSAT equipped in by end of 2023 and there is no timescale predicted for the remainder.

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The leaders in VSAT take up and the move to digitalise shipping are inevitably the high end operators with large fleets. It is highly unlikely that over the four year period mentioned above that they will be adding all the 12,000 vessels projected by Euroconsult to sign up to VSAT. At the other end of the scale, the operator with a pair of ageing, near end of life handy size bulkers who sees nothing more necessary than an Inmarsat C to meet Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) compliance is also out of the picture. In between these extremes, every combination of data generation, transmission and use will be found, and this must be where growth comes from, but it may not be guaranteed.

If that sentiment goes against the grain of the way digitalisation is being talked about as imperative for the future for shipping, it needs to be recognised that take up of technology will be driven primarily by affordability and perceived benefit. Old hands in the industry will recall that VSAT first entered the maritime vocabulary well before the roll out of GMDSS in the 1990s and that by 2000 VSAT was common on cruise ships and research/survey vessels but rarely found elsewhere until the boom in oil and gas from around 2006 to 2014.

The pandemic of 2020 highlighted the benefits of digitalisation not least by way of remote classification inspections when class surveyors were prevented from travelling. Interestingly most of these were made possible not by VSAT installations on ships but the more mundane use of 4G mobile telephone technology. Most of the inspections took place during port stays which meant that communications were by way of mobile networks rather than VSAT.

VSAT best at sea

That is not an option when vessels are at sea when VSAT or other means of data transmission come into their own. There certainly can be some benefit from passing data on engine parameters, fuel use and vessel performance to experts ashore and if there is the possibility of immediate advice on how to improve performance then owners will very likely adopt it.

Engine monitoring may also be used to manage maintenance regimes but only if the operator and OEM are working together on this aspect of ship operation. It is happening but not yet in the numbers that will give the concept of condition based maintenance in maritime critical mass.

If the data is accessible to OEM’s then there is the added benefit of collecting data on a much larger reference group than can be done by a single owner. That could lead to more rapid evolution and elimination of faults.

After engine performance it is the wider matter of vessel performance and fuel use. Several owners already have monitoring centres ashore from where they can see events happening in real time. Presumably, the cost savings must be sufficient to warrant the extra cost of personnel ashore duplicating to some extent the roles of navigating and engineering officers on board. Alternatively they can be seen as a safety measure to avoid a repeat of events such as happened on the Costa Concordia.

In due course they may evolve into autonomous command centres for the ships that are just now beginning to be built with remote operation designed in. For this type of ship to reach its full potential there will need to be a global consensus on their regulation as otherwise they will be limited to domestic waters.

The regulation driver

There is another driving factor behind digitalisation for today’s fleet and that is the increasing amount of regulation that requires so much of the operation of a ship to be recorded and scrutinised in the way the regulators believe is the easiest.

In particular this will cover operation of systems such as ballast water treatment, scrubber use, NOx abatement, bilge cleaning, grey water disposal and possibly even robotic hull cleaning. There are already requirements to record some of these operations electronically and the use of electronic record books (ERBs) for MARPOL related activities was approved by the IMO with effect from 1 October 2020.

There is a more depth explanation of the regulation in the Rivertrace's whitepaper MARITIME INDUSTRY 2.0: THE FUTURE IS DIGITAL.. In its capacity as an equipment developer and supplier, Rivertrace has already been working with Prevention at Sea and can offer a solution to ship operators.

Many flag states are quite happy to allow the use of ERBs but that may not be true of all. Classification society DNV has advised that when installed onboard, a “Declaration of MARPOL electronic record book” shall be issued to the ship by the Flag Administration or on behalf of the Flag by a Recognized Organization. This declaration will serve as proof of meeting the requirements, and it shall be kept onboard for the purpose of regulatory surveys or inspections.

Highlighting another aspect of digitalisation, DNV said if delegated by a flag state it may do the onboard installation survey – possibly remotely – and issue the declaration.

DNV does however have a caveat saying despite ERBs being introduced in MARPOL, there may still be Port States which are reluctant towards ERBs. Hence, before going fully digital the option of replacing the hardcopy record book should be carefully considered based on the vessels trading area and ports of call. Before opting for and using a MARPOL ERB as the vessel’s official logbook the following should be confirmed:

  • Do all relevant Port States accept MARPOL ERBs?
  • Is the specific MARPOL ERB approved by the Flag Administration of the ship?
  • Has a “Declaration of MARPOL electronic record book” been issued to the ship upon installation?

To learn more about what Rivertrace has been doing to become more digital please contact our sales team here.

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