SeaCell 4G Antenna & iCon Marine PLC System: Working Together to Make Smart Ships a Reality

The ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) and ‘Big Data’ are terms being bandied about across a wide range of sectors, with business leaders keen to exploit the huge benefits of data-driven systems and the information they collect. The marine industry is no exception but with unreliable access to the internet, the reality of integrating such systems offshore can have its challenges.

‘Smart ships’, where all systems are interconnected and potentially automated, seemed to be a concept of the distant future, yet new technology is already available to make full connectivity a reality.

Marine Power Line Communication (PLC) Systems: The Next Level in Connectivity

Power line communication systems have been used commercially and domestically for some time. The technology uses standard electrical wiring to simultaneously carry both data and electric power. From home automation for your heating or lighting to boosting your Wi-Fi signal from one room to another – PLC systems are becoming the norm.

Many of us remember a time before the internet even existed. It was a world of books, telephone calls and writing using a pen. Most of us now also rely on the freedom that the internet has given us, where information is available to us at the touch of button, where shipping arrives at our door less than 24 hours after placing an order. In a commercial capacity, online connectivity is even more critical – data must be collected and stored to be easily accessed and shared, meaning that the more systems talk to one another, the easier life becomes.

Interconnected systems allow for new levels of operational capabilities, offering opportunities for improved processes and profitability, yet none of this is possible without the right infrastructure. Onshore, this isn’t too much of a problem. Miles of telephone lines, later progressing to fibre-optic cables, have been installed across the globe to ensure we remain ‘connected’. Power lines in homes and businesses are stable and equipped to maintain the ability for the constant communication we have come to expect. Offshore, it’s been another story.

Unlike many commercial businesses, maritime operators have had to wait for technological innovation to catch up with their expectations and needs. Maritime VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) systems were a critical innovation which helped vessels to become connected to the internet. VSAT relies on satellite communication to provide broadband connectivity almost anywhere in the world. The system relies on a stable antenna which is constantly pointed at the satellite so if a ship is docked or anchored, signal strength will be consistent. It’s only when moving that issues arise.

SeaCell: The Power of 4G at Sea

Limited connectivity can and will affect the daily operation of any business. In an environment as challenging and potentially hostile as a ship, it can make life difficult and basic tasks arduous. 4G has revolutionised the way we access the internet on a daily basis, with stable signals boosting our access to things like streaming services and online gaming, even on the move. This is all well and good in the middle of a city or large town but what about when you are miles from anywhere in the middle of the ocean? Where’s your 4G signal then?

SeaCell is a revolutionary 4G antenna designed specifically for use at sea, providing high-speed internet of over 20Mbps to vessels in port and up to 20km out to sea. Described by a Captain recently as “The best internet system I’ve seen on a ship”, SeaCell offers a more robust and reliable alternative to VSAT systems. Often, internet services via a VSAT system suffer from bandwidth limitations and coverage constraints. Onshore, 4G antennas have been proven to offer faster speeds than satellite internet, with the introduction of SeaCell, the same can now be said for offshore.

4G is also more cost effective than VSAT. The combination of SeaCell and iCon has been proven to save operators over 40% on their VSAT airtime costs, making the smart ship vision an affordable reality.

Integrated Operational Efficiency

Boosting connectivity using marine PLC systems can influence and enhance the day to day operations on any ship. From powering real-time CCTV and security systems, to making condition based monitoring systems more reliable, marine PLC systems such as iCon can have a huge impact on the safety of any marine operation. Having the ability to transmit live footage or situational reports back to land can make all the difference when facing a potential threat. Law enforcement or naval agencies can be informed of suspected piracy, smuggling and other nefarious activities within seconds of them happening, allowing for swift action to be taken.

When systems talk to one another, less time is spent carrying out tedious tasks. Marine PLC systems bring the benefits of some of the biggest time-saving technologies onboard for the first time. RFID (Radio-frequency identification) tags have revolutionised the way that information can be stored and shared. These tags talk can to a networked, or connected system, exchanging small amounts of information which can be used for identification of passengers, crew members and assets. They can be used to give and prevent access to certain areas of the ship, help to identify cargo and even automate inventory management.

The key to the success of any connected technology is how well the system is used and how the collected data is applied. The scope for marine PLC systems is huge in terms of applying ‘Big Data’ principles. Once systems and sensors are connected, it can open up a myriad of possibilities to allow a constant accurate assessment of a ship’s conditions to be reported at any time. Huge datasets collected from around a vessel can be collected, processed and analysed to improve operational efficiency, productivity and safety, all in a matter of minutes.

The ‘plug and play’ functionality of iCon can be retro-fitted onto a ship in under 4 hours, meaning that there is no loss of operational service during installation, instantly connecting to a ship’s existing communication system via the powerlines, meaning that wireless networks can be created in minutes, anywhere onboard, without the need for additional wiring, infrastructure or training.

A Connected Crew

Smart ships aren’t just beneficial to commercial operators, they are also a huge leap forward for seafarers. When you are miles out to sea for weeks at a time, information comes at a premium for crew members. Until quite recently, access to basic internet access has been notoriously difficult and if available, sub-standard. In late 2013, the Telegraph reported that nearly two-thirds of sailors on cargo ships had no access to the internet. Transfer this notion to any other occupation and you would wonder how they carry out their jobs; which begs the question – just how efficient are marine operations?

Personal access to the internet empowers people to learn and push the boundaries of their professional expertise. It can also help people to learn new skills and take control of their professional development. With a distinct skills shortage within the marine sector, it is critical to be able to attract younger, more technologically advanced crew members who are digital natives. With mental health issues and suicides becoming more prevalent amongst seafarers, it’s imperative that younger generations don’t suffer issues such as social exclusion needlessly.

Marine PLC systems can provide internet access across an entire vessel, allowing access to social media, e-learning systems and entertainment 24 hours a day. Access to such services are not just demanded by the new generation of seafarers, they are expected and will make all the difference when it comes to attracting the top talent.

Intelligent Healthcare

Outside of helping seafarers to stay in touch with the outside world, marine PLC systems have huge additional benefits for crew welfare. Telemedicine systems such as iVital rely on data connections to provide access to life saving healthcare systems and services. With 1 in 5 ships being forced to divert for medical reasons each year, telemedicine systems have become crucial to both operators and crew members. Telemedicine systems can reduce the number of diversions by 20%, helping to diagnose non-critical and critical illnesses and help medical personnel to take the most appropriate course of action.

Outside of life saving equipment such as blood-pressure monitors and pulse oximeters, telemedicine systems offer access to onshore medical specialists who can continually monitor a crew member’s condition and ongoing care. Access to this potentially life-saving service relies on VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) or Skype calls where the specialist can speak with the patient directly if needed. The faster, more reliable connection provided by SeaCell and iCon can make all the difference when a crew member needs a hasty diagnosis or treatment.

Full Steam Ahead?

None of us are oblivious to the impact of the internet and according to recent research, the average person touches their smart phone 2,617 times a day. There is an argument that this level of addition to technology is actually making us less productive, but in a sector as traditionally ‘disconnected’ as the marine industry, there is a huge amount to be gained from the latest connected systems.

The concept of ‘smart ships’ may scare some operators as they require a great deal of input and technological understanding to be truly valuable, yet as with all step-changes, the transition can be gradual. Martek Marine specialise in providing technologies which revolutionise ship safety, performance and crew welfare and usually these systems are separate and distinct. Smart ship approaches and combined connectivity products such as SeaCell and iCon address the real-world challenges of the modern marine industry and help us get closer towards our mission in once step. Designed to work together, SeaCell and iCon bring marine operations one step closer to the smart-ship vision.

Feel the power of 4G on your vessel and improve the morale and productivity of your crew with SeaCell, the 4G antenna designed specifically for use on ships. Find out more about our free 3 month trial.

iCon – smart technology for smart ships. It only takes less than 4 hours to install, using existing onboard infrastructure. Find out more from one of our connectivity experts or request a quote for your vessel or fleet.