The Deep Blue Sea – By Satellite


They transport 90% of the world’s trade: everything from oil to smartphones, toaster ovens to automobiles. Yet there are only about four million of them, out of the world’s seven billion.  Chances are, you have never even met one.

They are mariners: the men (mostly) and women who crew the vessels that move commodities and products from one port to another on every continent of the world.  Theirs is a unique calling with severe challenges. Their reward is a paycheck and a chance to see the world as few of us see it.

Dangerous Isolation

It can be a very lonely life. Mariners spend long periods at sea – from a few months to a year.  Their time in port is short because time in port costs money. They leave behind family and friends to sail with a rotating cast of strangers.

It is also a life filled with danger. In port, they rig cargo for loading and unloading, with cranes and cables flying back and forth. At sea, they chip and paint, service machinery, mend lines, rebuild pumps and weld broken metal back together. With long hours and bad weather, fatigue sets in and the risks of accident and injury grow.

The rigors of life at sea present the shipping industry with a challenge. Economic growth is making opportunities ashore ever more attractive, and recent studies predict the industry will face a hiring shortfall of more than 360,000 mariners by 2050. The challenges of the mariner’s life are rapidly becoming a problem for ship owners – and the solution for both is right overhead.

Satellites Serving Ships at Sea

The modern ship is always in touch.  It navigates by GPS, just as you do. Satellites carry email, voice calls, weather forecasts and navigation charts.  A growing range of “digital ship” applications keep engines running at peak performance and protect cargo from loss.  Add in broadband for the crew – from social media to Netflix – and ships can start consuming more bandwidth than a roomful of teenagers.  That can produce real sticker shock for ship owners, because connecting ships at sea is always going to be more expensive than connecting homes on your street.

A company called ITC Global has an answer.  It offers a service called Crew LIVE that gives each ship two kinds of connections.  One is for the vessel, to handle its own needs.  The other is for the crew.  Crew members receive their own pay-as-you-go accounts for email, social media and entertainment. The mariners get to decide how much online access they want – and ship owners get the predictable costs they need.

Applications for Physical and Emotional Health

As a subsidiary of Panasonic, ITC Global delivers Crew LIVE over the Panasonic broadband mobility network and provides the hardware, software and management services to ships.

“We’re nearing 25,000 registered crew members on the network and we’re seeing them each use an average of 1 gigabyte of data per month,” says ITC Global CEO Ian Dawkins.  That is more than 1.8 terabytes per month combined – yet ship owners don’t have a problem, because their costs are controlled and they know their spending goes to greater safety, efficiency and productivity for the vessel. That has opened up a world of applications that benefit both ship owners and crew.

A company called FutureCare provides remote medical care for more than 25,000 crew members aboard ships around the world. When illness or injury strikes a member of the crew, FutureCare physicians use video conferencing to make a diagnosis, create a treatment plan and follow up. Managing health aboard ship reduces the chances of an emergency stop at the nearest port, which can throw off the ship’s itinerary and cost potentially millions of dollars. The peace of mind it provides officers and crew aboard ship can be priceless.

Just as valuable is the emotional well-being that comes from being able to stay connected with friends or take part in a child’s birthday over FaceTime or Skype. Mariners seeking to advance their careers can gain also access to training without having to put in extra time ashore without pay.

Through heat and cold, long days and raging storms, the world’s mariners still go down to the sea in ships. They make sure the shelves in your store are stocked, the service station can fill your car with gas, and factories have the materials they need. With a little help from satellites far overhead, that job has become safer, a little easier and a lot more rewarding.

Produced for SpaceNews by Space & Satellite Professionals International

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