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New wave connectivity

The Naval Architect: March 2016

We live in an age of communication that is constantly increasing our use of communication technologies; however, up until recently, at sea communication and data transfer have been snagged by the limits of satellite connectivity and the service it provides for those communicating between vessels and the shore.

A new Cognitive Networked High Frequency (CNHF) radio system from Finnish start-up KNL Networks is set to change this, according to its developers, disrupting the way information is passed to and from vessels with a secure and “100% reliable” system that partners and reduces satellite communication. The innovative design, which is believed to be “the only known alternative to satellite communication”, is intended to be used for email communications, Internet of Things (IoT) data, instant messaging, sensor data, and file updates, as well as secure and mission-critical communications, and offers greatly improved coverage, including in polar regions and across a link distance of up to 10,000km.

This kind of range is facilitated by the CNHF radio’s dual-technology, which combines the latest cognitive and software radio technologies with a traditional high frequency (HF) terrestrial radio. The combination uses short wave radio transmissions to transmit data over large distances, and KNL have innovatively utilised the HF spectrum as a gateway to the IP-network (Internet-Protocol-network). The CNHF system operates completely digitally and has been designed with built-in cellular, WiFi and LAN-connections for providing IP-connectivity to other networks.

One of the radio’s key features is how it relays information through different users of the MESH-radio network. KNL Networks explains that: “The CNHF radio acts as a terminal or a base station, depending on the status and location of the user. When a user is lacking cellular or LAN connection, the radio operates as [a] terminal providing services to the user. While connected to the Internet or IP-network, the radio switches to base station mode for offering communication to other users as well, still maintaining [a] terminal role for the end user.” This means that “a dedicated link is always established for the end user, so the data rate is not divided between users as it is in Satcom. This enables an exceptional quality of service [for] most applications except very high quality video streaming.”

At present, Satcom has limitations. These can include non-existent coverage in polar areas (a problem that will grow in significance if Arctic shipping is realised); coverage that is limited to satellite orbits; a shared downlink capacity that may be severely affected by weather and shadowing; and a service that comes at considerable expense.

KNL Networks state that their service will take effect in two phases. The first phase will allow email, IP/file transfer, chat messages and built-in location tracking, while phase two, following growth in the number of users and therefore the spread and capacity of the MESH-radio network, will enable new applications like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and internet browsing. Toni Linden, CEO of KNL Networks, emphasises that all of these services can be transmitted at the same time other than online video streaming due to the dedicated end to end link the system provides, and adds that the reason online video streaming cannot be handled at this juncture is because of the system’s low bandwidth, which allows data rates of 700-153,000 bit/s. This being said, the system can be optimised to work for the needs of users and the type of data they are trying to transfer.

Increasing digitalisation is tremendously beneficial, but it raises the issue of cybersecurity and the question of how the maritime industry will cope. With this debate afoot, Linden believes that Satcom is too vulnerable to jamming for vessels to rely on its security in the future, and the CNHF radio offers the answer.

According to Linden, its system is substantially harder to jam or tamper with than satellite communications because it sees other users of the system and interference in the same way: external entities to the end to end link. Linden claims: “Not even a governmental organisation [is] ready to block it at the moment.” But admittedly adds that anything is possible in a cyberattack with enough time and resources. Part of the system’s robustness comes from its ability to detect jamming or indifference and automatically change data parameters to continue transmitting. It also rapidly synchronises at random points of the radio spectrum without repeating these points, increasing the difficulty for would-be jammers.   

The company says: “Adding security on operations is a value itself. With the CNHF system there’s finally an alternative communication system to operate in parallel with easy to jam Satcom.” KNL Networks is currently involved in talks with larger organisations and companies interested in Smart Ships for which its system’s redundancy would be attractive.

The company was formed in 2011 after spinning off from the University of Oulu. Its system design was so “out there” that they needed a prototype, which, following its success in testing, was commercialised and is currently being scaled-up to be launched later this year. Linden says that the company realised during the R&D stage that services and a network were needed, so they expanded from their development of the cognitive radio technology.

Linden stresses that the service is already in operation for selected customers and that the company currently has the capability to add hundreds of new ships to the network. The new service may be particularly attractive for ship owners wishing to improve communications with their ships, as this could lower their insurance costs. However, KNL Networks are also in the process of approaching equipment companies; the constant real-time passing of monitory data could be a revelation, proffering valuable information, for example, in the case of preventive maintenance strategies. Linden also suggests that the service could be offered by equipment providers themselves, stating that leftover bandwidth from the transmission of equipment performance information could be offered to the vessel for ship communications.

The company’s promise, “Keeping you online. Always”, is appreciative of the maritime industry’s heading and its need for the constant flow of information. This paradigm shift will require innovative technologies like the CNHF-radio to facilitate the future, and, with the keeping of this promise, the CNHF-radio has the potential to solve present connectivity problems and facilitate what is to come for the maritime industry: Big Data, smart shipping and Smart Ships.

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