The importance of connectivity for Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) goes without saying, but it’s worth remembering how reliant today’s vessels already are for ship-to-shore communications. A large operator such as Maersk Line, with around 275 modern vessels under its ownership and management, already downloads around 30 terabytes of data per month (around 110 gigabytes per vessel) from onboard sensors.
In effect, these vessels are already operating at ‘Degree 1’ of IMO’s MASS definitions, in other words they utilise some automated processes and decision support tools, albeit that crew are onboard and continue to man the bridge. But from an operational perspective, the benefits are already being felt in terms of fuel savings, regulatory compliance, cargo tracing and crew welfare.
“Shipowners and managers recently surveyed say digitalisation brings more than 30% savings (an average of US$10 million) in operational efficiency,” says Marco Cristoforo Camporeale, head of maritime digital for satellite communications provider Inmarsat, noting that the company’s own Fleet Data IoT platform is one such service enabling this.
When it comes to ‘Degree 2’ – remotely controlled vessels with some crew onboard – there will be greater demand upon the global availability, latency and capacity of ship-to-shore communications. Camporeale is (predictably) confident that Inmarsat’s dual band Fleet Xpress could amply provide in that regard.
With such vessels there’s an assumption that the occasions when the bridge may be permitted to be unmanned will be while at deep sea, meaning that the latency and capacity of communications would be less important. Once the vessel comes closer to shore, in closer contact with other ships, crew are more likely to be navigating or at least on standby to intervene.
“Our seafarers will also have more time for other tasks and here we need to consider the connectivity they will require. We want to provide dedicated bandwidth for specific applications, so that there is a segregated pipeline to make sure that certain vital systems have the connectivity they require,” says Camporeale.
The bigger challenges will begin with ‘Degree 3’: unmanned remotely controlled ships. By definition, loss of connectivity onboard such a vessel cannot be acceptable since there would be nobody onboard to assume manual control. While this risk could be mitigated by having the redundancy of multiple systems, an additional problem is posed by issues such as latency and capacity.
“When we’re getting close to port or crossing channels we need to have near real-time control of the ship, so we’re talking about the need for several tens of megabits per second depending on edge processing... with live streaming of multiple cameras that have to be piped to shore.”
While the problem of capacity is largely solvable, with Inmarsat already offering solutions for cruise ship clients that make it possible for thousands of passengers to stream video simultaneously, scaling that up to cover the global merchant fleet is presently impractical.
But latency, the time it can take to transfer data, is something inherent to satellite communication systems and Camporeale suggests it could mean that unmanned remotely operated ships would always require some sort of autonomous safety mode, at least for situations when the vessel isn’t close enough for shoreside connectivity.
In that regard ‘Degree 4’, the fully autonomous ship, might be the safer solution. Since such vessels would be completely unmanned and reliant on the navigation system the level of connectivity required at sea would be much the same as Degree 2 and there would be none of the latency or capacity concerns of Degree 3.
“We might require a partial degree of connectivity in case of an emergency but it’s more a case of managing the situation because the autonomous system is taking the ship into a safe emergency condition. The remote connectivity required is only about giving special commands but doesn’t require a full remote control system.”
Further blurring the distinction between Degrees 3 and 4, Camporeale suggests a possible scenario is that the autonomous system would hand over to a remote control station once the vessel is nearing port , which would offer the added security of human agency while utilising the lower latency and superior capacity that LTE offers over satellite.
“Inmarsat is currently working towards a single integrated connectivity system that relies on L-band, K-band satellite connectivity and also LTE – with the Fleet LTE solution already available this year – in order to provide a full-fledged system with redundancy that will enable a future fully autonomous ship,” he concludes.