Vessel control in the cloud

With all this ship to shore data, how are we best to manage it all? With all this ship to shore data, how are we best to manage it all?

The Internet of Things is online aboard merchant vessels already. Engine manufacturers, suppliers of equipment and instruments all now install sensors that monitor performance and condition. All this data can be fed into monitoring and alarm systems.

Through satellite connections, the information can also be reviewed ashore. With all this big data available to all but the smallest commercial vessels, the industry is studying all the ways to manage it.

Thirteen suppliers of vessel automation and communication systems and eleven ship owners from The Netherlands have been working together in the broadband@sea platform to create an overview of available connections, to map data protocols used by hardware suppliers to allow for condition based maintenance and to study which information needs to be transferred with the shore station, and in which way.

“System integrators have gained experience with integrating data protocols from different suppliers like engine manufacturers and monitoring and alarm systems,” chairman Peter Cortie of the platform explains. “The signals from different on board installations are fed into software that understands the meaning of all these bits and bytes and projects it on a bridge screen as usable information for the captain, navigator and engineers. Finding a universal protocol for data exchange is not the primary concern for ship owners. The combined information about performance and condition of different systems aboard the vessel, can easily be transferred to the shore station of the ship owner, using the satellite internet connection. Software at the ship owner’s office can easily be installed to be compatible with the vessel data flow.”

The main challenge is to identify which information is critical and should be transferred to shore, and which information can be kept on board, for the captain and his crew to judge. “As always when new technologies manifest, there is a period of acceptance,” Cortie reflects. “Captain and crew are always responsible for safe navigation and do not want to be merely executing orders and directions from the shore based control station. On the side of the ship owner, there is less emotional response but here the rationale is a consideration of cost of data transfer in relation to savings on maintenance and logistics. Satellite bandwidth prices are dropping, so ever more information is being reviewed on shore.”

A main concern of ship owners and operators in this phase of development of the globe spanning connectivity of the merchant fleet, is safety. “The maritime industry is very much aware of the dangers of cyber crime,” platform Secretary Ron Vollenga adds. “The data sent should be encrypted, so competing companies cannot get critical information about the status of vessels. Apart from business motivations, there is also a security risk. With the internet connection linked to vital installations like the monitoring and alarm system, hackers that break in to the vessels' computerised controls, could do a lot of harm. One of our members expressed that he would like to grant engine manufacturers and other equipment suppliers the opportunity to 'log in' to his vessels in order to check on performance and condition of their installations. We are still in the process of describing the requirements for a software environment that allows specific suppliers, the owners' shore station, the captain and engineer, maybe the coast guard, pilots or traffic control centres each the rights to review the amount of information they need and are entitled to, but that excludes them from other stored information on board.” This kind of system has been common practice in other industries for some time now, but in the maritime industry it needs to be re-designed to fit the specific requirements of a ship.

The aim of the EU’s Sea Traffic Management Validation project is to develop the outlines for a data exchange protocol to improve safety at sea and allow traffic management from shore stations. The European Union has made 21 million euros available for 300 communication sets to be installed on 300 vessels in this project. The equipment installed allows captains and navigators to share data like weather reports, routes chosen, sea state reports and information on other vessels in the shipping lane with other vessels and with shore support. The project proceeds where the MonaLisa 2.0 project stopped, that has outlined an open source software package that can manage information flows to those who are granted access, but provide safety from those with no permission to look into the data.

A software test has been conducted on the Oslo fjord. Tablet computers were connected to the systems aboard five vessels of Bastø Fosen ferry company in the Horten-Moss Strait, the most heavily trafficked seaway in Norway. To test the software, land-based installations were installed at Bastø Fosen’s traffic center and at the Norwegian Coastal Administration where they also oversee traffic. All data from the vessels' systems and the traffic control centres was stored in the cloud. Different users got access to different bits of information.

In the STM Validation project, that will be running from this year until 2020, implementation of the cloud-based Internet of Things in the maritime industry, with controlled access and sufficient protection against cyber crime, is to be prepared. Eleven ports around Europe have announced their participation and 300 vessels are invited to join. Since the project started last November, no news has been released about progress in this project. The amount of participants is not disclosed. 

So how about crew at sea checking their smartphones or reporting about their tasks with a tablet? ”Crew welfare,” chairman Peter Cortie of the platform 'Broadband@sea' describes this phenomena. Of course, the former seafarer and business development director of marine electronics company Admarel does not mean the urban social media hype by that description. In perspective of ship owners, crew welfare would rather be the ability to connect to homes on shore and exchange e-mails or even direct telephone calls or face to face skype conversations. This kind of continuous broadband data connections is not yet reality on most merchant vessels. Technical possibilities are in place, however, with cruise lines already offering their passengers internet access throughout the passages.

By Hans Buitelaar

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