Connecting people through the use of technology

Sam Ballard talks to Hovertravel and Caledonian MacBrayne to understand how technology is changing the way they communicate and operate

Connecting people through the use of technology
Hovertravel uses Netbiter to capture and transmit real-time data about the performance of its hovercraft
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

When it comes to technology few can argue that the diverse global maritime industry is a world leader. From satellite systems that help head offices to accurately track vessels wherever they are in the world, to energy-saving solutions that are driving plans to make the sector more environmentally friendly. Technology is an area that moves as fast as the vessels themselves.

For UK-based Hovertravel, which claims to be the world’s longest-running commercial hovercraft service, the challenge of keeping up with technology is just as great – despite the fact it offers Solent crossings that last less than 10 minutes.

“Our craft use mainly standard, well-proven and reliable communications systems due to the nature of our route,” says Mike Chalkley, engineering director at Hovertravel. “The real innovation that we have incorporated into the new craft is the use of real-time data capture and transmission using a web-based service called Netbiter. This allows us to capture craft performance parameters, which can then be analysed on a computer anywhere in the world.”

The technology is remarkably simple to use. First Hovertravel connects a Netbiter Gateway to the equipment in the field, which then sends data through a mobile phone network or Ethernet cable to the cloud-based Netbiter data centre. The data is encrypted to ensure sensitive material remains secure.

Within the hovercraft itself, the technology communicates through a marine specific CAN-bus called Empirbus, with information gathered in EmpirBus DCM units. This collects data such as fuel levels, running hours, propeller pitch and temperature, which can be viewed from specialised onboard displays. The Netbiter gateways also send the data via the cellular network to the Netbiter Argos web service. By logging on, Griffon Hoverwork (the hovercraft builder) and Hovertravel are able to view live data from the shore, the same data that is visible at sea. It is also possible to set up alarms if certain metrics are breached.

“This information is shared between us as the operator and Griffon Hoverwork to optimise operating performance and design,” Chalkley explains. “The information is analysed to continue to develop our maintenance and operating procedures, working with the craft manufacturer, to deliver further efficiencies and cost savings.”

Once set up, the software’s dashboard will automatically display the data that users wish to see. The tailored solution means that Hovertravel can be analysed to keep track of key metrics, reducing costs of maintenance checks. For smaller operators like Hovertravel, this kind of money-saving initiative is key.

Another company that has invested in its new technology is Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac), the Scottish ferry firm that rolled out wireless technology to all ports and vessels last year.

The company carries over 5 million passengers, as well as 1.3 million cars and 80,000 commercial vehicles during 136,000 sailings on 48 routes every year. CalMac operates the UK’s largest ferry network and recently took up the contract to start services between the Argyll island of Kerrera and the mainland, south of Oban – by all measures a tiny route, given the island’s 50-strong population.

First announced in 2015, the wireless project means that CalMac’s customer and company interface will become fully digital, offering advantages to all who interact with the business on various devices. Customers will be able to manage journeys, search timetables and access their e-boarding cards. Wi-fi in the ports and on the ferries will enable passengers to stay connected throughout their journey. Good news for business travellers.

“What we’ll put in place is not dissimilar to the kind of front-facing customer service offered by the likes of British Airways, and we’re one of the first passenger transport companies in the UK to achieve this,” explains Robbie Drummond, CalMac’s service delivery director. “This is cutting edge and will ensure that any customer or member of staff, no matter where they are in the world, can access their required systems from any device at any time.” In the past, communication with many of our port and ship-based employees has been rather sporadic for a number of reasons – not least the lack of connectivity on the ships and limited access to a computer for many staff – so paper-based reporting was often the only option,” adds Drummond. “We’re removing a lot of time-consuming admin paper trail work from our staff, which will allow for greater customer focus. There’s a real social enterprise element to this, particularly from a staff point of view. The system will allow both social and business content, and has the power to connect employees more closely, engendering a sense of engagement and community within the network.”

This initiative, which CalMac says is in line with one of the Scottish government’s key transport objectives – improving safety through enhanced communications, with access at all times to relevant documentation – is massive. However, it is the inclusivity of the technology that is perhaps the most impressive aspect. In essence: the networks will make it easier for remote island communities and CalMac’s own staff to stay connected.

It’s one of the best examples available today of a company being interwoven with a community. Proof, if any was needed, that technology is more about improving lives than just improving bottom lines.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017