Helping ferry operators with smart data delivery

Les Shortall of Inmarsat talks to Michele Witthaus about the company’s solutions that are enabling a revolution in digitalisation for ferry operators

Helping ferry operators with smart data delivery

Building on its long history of working with the maritime sector to improve the way fleets operate, Inmarsat has developed a digital platform that makes it easier for its customers to implement digital tools that increase efficiency and safety across their vessels.

Condition monitoring is an important item in the digital toolbox, providing the ability to monitor all onboard assets. “Ferry operators who use digital solutions for their performance monitoring can see their maintenance records in the cloud any time they want to,” says Les Shortall, director of yachting and passenger sector development for Inmarsat. “They can also begin to collect information on the return on investment of minimising vessel outages. That also helps to give a spin-off benefit in terms of safety management.”

The need to achieve fuel and emissions savings is a major driver for operators to consider digital solutions, says Shortall. “Fuel usage is one of the highest recurring costs for any vessel, so anything which can reduce fuel costs is a big advantage. Fuel savings are also important for the adjacent benefits around reducing emissions.”

Smart vessels offer the opportunity to monitor fuel usage and emissions, so that owners can consider mitigation strategies such as slow steaming. “You can get to your destination port at the lowest cost and don’t have to rush to wait,” explains Shortall. “A fleet manager across multiple ferries can look at best practice to see if certain captains are operating vessels more efficiently than others or if certain ships are operating better on different routes.”

The ability to conduct remote diagnostics is of growing interest to operators. “They can reduce the high costs of technical specialists having to travel to vessel locations because they can remotely access what’s going on and therefore it becomes a lot less expensive to diagnose and it’s quicker to do repairs and fix problems.”

Automation of previously manual monitoring functions has the potential to improve safety on ships, says Shortall. “It’s about using technology in ways that reduce the burden on the crew. That has big knock-on benefits particularly around the safety of the vessels – if you can put more sensors around a vessel, they can monitor all kinds of things about how a vessel is operating, for example the vessel angle of list.”

Inmarsat is seeing a growing interest for automated safety systems that allow vessels to gather data from a ‘black box’ system similar to the type used on aircraft. “We’re working with partners to ensure that whenever the system detects that a vessel is operating outside of its normal parameters, it begins to upload the voyage data recorder information to the cloud straight away,” says Shortall. “It will also generate alerts and this gives you the ability to get visibility early on of what might be a serious problem, often before the captain or crew have noticed it on the ship itself. That’s something we’ve been pioneering with Danelec and demonstrated as a proof of concept to the International Maritime Organization.”

Inmarsat works in partnership with other organisations to help operators achieve their technology goals. To this end, the company has a Certified Application Providers (CAP) programme which brings together application providers, with problem-solving capabilities, both large and small. “We’ve been working to extend the CAP programme and to get more companies certified and able to have their solutions connected onboard operator vessels,” explains Shortall. ”Always-on connectivity is increasingly essential for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and systems integrators to deliver their best services to ferry operators.”

To ensure that solutions can be cost-effectively put onboard the ships, Inmarsat has been rolling out leasing programmes, “which in effect overcome the operator challenge of scarce capital. They can lease the connectivity systems hardware instead of having to buy them upfront and that means they can start to use and get the benefit of these digitalisation solutions without huge upfront costs.”

Once cutting-edge technology is installed on vessels, it is crucial for operators to ensure that the resulting customer experience meets the increasingly complex demands of passengers. A report conducted by Inmarsat in partnership with JG Maritime Solutions shows that passenger expectations are continuing to evolve and to become more demanding, especially on international routes. “On a local ferry, you probably get your mobile phone coverage, but on international routes, passengers are increasingly expecting the same wi-fi experience onboard as in a café onshore,” says Shortall.

“We continue to work hard to overcome the outdated perception that satellite connectivity is expensive. Today, it’s a high data throughput technology which is lighter, more compact and more cost efficient than ever before, offering more efficient use of the satellite spectrum. The fact that more than 11,000 vessels worldwide have installed Inmarsat’s modern Fleet Xpress satellite system is a powerful indicator of how affordable satellite connectivity has become.”

New pricing models are contributing to improvements in efficiency and service. “Operators are looking increasingly at paid-for wi-fi services because they see that charging for connectivity can help to balance demand. Not everyone will pay for it, therefore those that do use it will likely get a much better service. It also generates revenue for the operator to invest in better and higher-quality wi-fi services for passengers.”

Shortall adds: “We’re also looking at more flexible commercial models, so that it’s not a heavy upfront burden on the operator and they can begin to get the benefits to their operations and passengers and it pays for itself as it goes.”

Cybersecurity concerns are increasingly cited as reasons why maritime IT departments are wary of giving access to the systems on the vessel. “With Inmarsat, they can be assured that cybersecurity is embedded throughout all of our technology and services; from design to in-life and even end-of-life. Our security specialists and 24/7 cybersecurity operations centre work actively with the intelligence community and Inmarsat partners and customers, continually ensuring we keep the whole network and the data traffic itself completely secure to the highest standards,” says Shortall.

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. 

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Michele Witthaus
By Michele Witthaus
29 October 2021

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