Focus: Progression In The World Of SATCOMs @ Sea
by Casper Jensen, V.P. Maritime Business Unit, Thrane & Thrane
The maritime industry has always had a challenging time trying to keep its workforce in place. The financial reward for going to sea, often for months at a time, can be significant but the fact that seafarers are required to spend so long away from home means that many of them dont view life on the ocean waves as a job for life. So crew retention is a major concern for ship operators human resources departments. The companies with the best track record in supporting long term careers at sea are those that see fit to invest in the best facilities for their crew aboard vessels. Ensuring that there is a safe working environment and that crew members can relax and enjoy their time when off-shift is vital to long-term workplace sustainability, and the majority of major shipping players see SATCOM as a cost-effective way of enabling this.
Inmarsat FleetBroadband, which is the maritime variant of Inmarsats Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN), is the major Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) for shipping. Its the only satellite broadband service available globally, which, when looking at the global nature of shipping, is a very attractive feature for ship owners and operators.
Although since its launch in November 2007, companies have chosen FleetBroadband across their fleets to provide Internet to crew on-board, ultimately for long term crew retention, many users quickly recognised the operational benefits the system offers. They quickly integrated the system into office and engineering system networks in order to realise the potential of a full IP connection, which has enabled numerous enhancements to safety and operational efficiency.
FleetBroadband is, when compared to VSAT antennas, very easy to deploy aboard a ship. Because the antennas are lightweight and compact, installation can be carried out by crewmembers, who are generally very keen to get broadband Internet on-board.
In the case of Thrane & Thrane FleetBroadband terminals, many of its multi-vessel installation projects are based on the delivery of installation packs to vessels. These could include computer, Ethernet Switch, router, mast, cables and fittings. This approach means that very little external assistance is required during installations. In fact, some crews have had the system up and running within two hours.
Its this ease of procurement and installation that helped FleetBroadband get such a strong foothold on the maritime sector so quickly. Thrane & Thrane has so far shipped over 20,000 FleetBroadband terminals, reflecting the popularity of the service in the shipping sector, and the companys leading position in the market.
Simplifying VSAT Procurement
At the other end of the scale to FleetBroadband, is maritime VSAT. Until now, it has been widely recognised that these antennas present a number of technical challenges when deployed on ships. The size of antenna, capital expenditure and complicated nature of VSAT procurement have become barriers to the further spread of VSAT within the maritime industry. But with lower cost, fixed airtime and higher bandwidth availability, VSAT has certainly found a niche aboard ships and a new Thrane & Thrane antenna promises to minimise the procurement and deployment challenges.
One of the first steps for Thrane & Thrane when developing the new SAILOR 900 VSAT antenna was to talk to VSAT service providers and end-users and review in detail the issues they faced. This helped to build a picture on the current state of play. With the target in terms of quality and performance set, the design team were determined to develop an antenna that was 100 percent suited to the environment it would be used in. This would rely on a new level of testing, involving the extensive use of real vessel data to ensure that the new antenna would perform reliably aboard any ship, regardless of the sea state or weather.
To accommodate this approach, a unique testing and simulation facility was constructed. The test area is all new; it is a three story extension to the Thrane & Thrane HQ building in Lyngby (seven miles north of Copenhagen) and was implemented solely with the purpose of improving development resources for the design of new antenna systems. Critical to the success of the new testing facility and the SAILOR 900 VSAT, was obtaining real vessel data that could be used to simulate real-life conditions.
Special measurement equipment that records vessel attitude data in regard to heading, roll, pitch, yaw, acceleration, position, temperature, and random vibrations and such, was deployed on different kinds of vessels from 20-300 metres. This data was fed into the multi-axis hydraulic motion testing and simulation platform that replicated exactly the movement of any vessel. Using real vessel motion and conditions, whilst connected to a live satellite provided a realistic long-term testing ground, which supported live sea trials and enabled a huge amount of data to be acquired in a relatively short period.
Simulated antenna testing is a complicated process, not the least because pointing at the satellite from inside a building is obviously a challenge. However, the investment and effort in setting up the new test and simulation facility enabled the team to sea-trial the antenna using a different ship profile at will, resulting in months of extended testing. This testing is an important factor considering the limitations antenna manufacturers face on carrying out live testing during antenna development. Additional facilities in the new test area include a set of vibration equipment and a special chamber for highly accelerated lifetime testing (HALT), which ensured that the antenna could be designed to exceed performance and reliability requirements within the harsh maritime environment.
As a result of Thrane & Thranes unique approach to developing the SAILOR 900 VSAT, it requires no evaluation, planning, procurement or installation of RF components. It is shipped from the factory ready to install. This removes the need for labour-intensive testing and balancing of the antenna on-board the vessels as Thrane & Thrane live test the antenna during production so that it will work on any Ku-band service, anywhere. The importance of this cannot be understated; it really is a step change in the world of maritime VSAT, which makes SAILOR 900 VSAT a far more attractive prospect to potential users.
The SAILOR 900 VSAT system has already made its mark in the maritime sector, with leading satellite service provider for ships and offshore vessels Marlink signing an agreement with Thrane & Thrane in September this year to add the innovative new Ku-band antenna to its portfolio and offer it to its extensive global customer network.
There is a definite need from the global shipping industry for integrated MSS and VSAT solutions, where VSAT would be the main source of connectivity when sailing within a broadcast satellites footprint, and FleetBroadband would be the back-up system when out of VSAT service, offering truly global coverage. The redundancy such a solution provides means that global sailing vessels can now experience continuous connectivity, wherever their trade takes them.
Inmarsat, too, seems to have recognised this, and with the 2010 announcement of the Ka-band based Global Xpress service, is getting ready to enter the world of VSAT. Global Xpress is expected to go live in 2013, and brand-new SAILOR terminals, specifically for use with this revolutionary new maritime Ka-band service, are currently in development as part of Thrane & Thranes position as a launch manufacturer for the new service.
SAILOR products are tested daily in some of the most extreme environments on the planet, which is why Thrane & Thrane is chosen to supply communication systems for the Volvo Ocean Race. The SATCOMs scope of supply for the 2011-2012 race fleet includes SAILOR 500 FleetBroadband, SAILOR 150 FleetBroadband and two SAILOR mini-C systems. The systems will be used to enable the sending of high definition video back to the race HQ by Media Crew Members and also for the downloading of weather data, which is one of the most important tactical tools the Volvo Open 70 skippers and crews have at their disposal. Thrane & Thrane will also supply the race teams, umpires and organisers with a range of fixed and portable VHF radios whilst the media team will also be using Thrane & Thrane EXPLORER BGAN terminals to report from strategic positions on land as the fleet leaves and enters port.
Ten years ago there wasnt much in the way of IP based SATCOM communication at sea, in fact, video from Volvo Ocean Race used to be collected by Navy ships or dropped in floating cans. Nowadays, IP is becoming an integral part of maritime communication and in the future it will be an important aspect of the navigation set-up, too. Even just five years ago, an Internet connection at sea was more akin to an old dial-up connection on land. You turned it on when you needed it, say four to six times per day, just to send some email back to the office, or if you were lucky, to friends and family. It really was still voice-based solutions that were prominent.
Now though, it is possible to stay online and be connected 24/7. The maritime industry has hit the next level of communications possibilities. Seafarers can be in regular contact with loved ones, which makes their life on the job a little bit easier, so choosing a long term career at sea is more viable. We have networks connecting vessels by LAN and WAN to the corporate office, allowing the use of sophisticated fleet tracking and efficiency applications to provide tangible cost savings and reduction in carbon emissions.
Looking forward, FleetBroadband will be getting some exciting new additions in 2012. Multi-voice provides the facility for up to nine simultaneous voice lines on a single terminal and functionality for Inmarsats new Dynamic Telemetry Services means that FleetBroadband terminals can soon be used for low-throughput tracking and monitoring applications. As FleetBroadband is such a core part of its business, Thrane & Thrane has already announced that these new services will be available on all new SAILOR FleetBroadband terminals and on existing terminals as a firmware upgrade. Over the next few years, its clear to see that MSS and VSAT are both a vital part of the maritime SATCOMs business.
About the author
Casper Jensen has been with Thrane & Thrane since 1999, having joined after earning an Engineering Masters degree. He holds overall responsibility for developing and implementing strategies for Thrane & Thranes maritime radio and satcoms product range. Within this role he is tasked with developing markets and bringing valuable market input into R&D to ensure the SAILOR portfolio meets the demands of the end-user.