Satellite operators offer communications for autonomous ships

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This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

SMM Hamburg, the biennial international maritime conference in Germany Sept. 4-7, attracted not only shipbuilders but also satellite operators eager to offer global communications for autonomous vessels.

“Without staff onboard the ships, it is important to have true visibility on where they are and the ability to monitor and control the ships wherever they go,” said Wouter Deknopper, Iridium Communication’s maritime vice president and general manager.

In recent years, companies have started to develop and test technologies aimed at improving shipping efficiency. Eventually, that work could lead to semi-autonomous and autonomous operations.

“People are looking at remote engine monitoring, IT support and electronic chart updates,” said Gerbrand Schalkwijk, Inmarsat Maritime’s deputy president.

“Ultimately, when all these pieces come together, you get to a stage where more activities are not done on the ship anymore but can be managed remotely. If everything works out well, also from a regulatory and insurance perspective, you may see autonomous vessels.” Satellite communications providers are establishing partnerships to offer enhanced ship-to-shore communications links for today’s ships and to prepare to support autonomous vessels.

Iridium announced Aug. 30 a signed letter of intent to work with Rolls-Royce Marine to explore incorporating Iridium Certus, the new L-band satellite broadband service, in Rolls-Royce Marine’s suite of Ship Intelligence products, which focus on asset management as well as remote and autonomous operations.

Iridium Certus is the company’s higher throughput broadband service made possible by its ongoing campaign to replace spacecraft in orbit with Iridium Next satellites. Iridium has completed seven of the eight launches needed to deploy its new 66 satellite constellation in low Earth orbit. “Iridium is aiming to enable pole-to-pole connectivity between vessel and shore or vessel-to-vessel in a remote and autonomous system configuration,” Rolls-Royce spokesman Craig Taylor said by email. “This will increase the reliability, since the approach will provide an alternative if there is a problem with the shore infrastructure. Effectively, it is mitigating the risk of power outage or other network infrastructure related incidents.”

The design and architecture of Iridium’s new satellite network fits well into plans for autonomous ships because L-band links work in all types of weather, Deknopper told SpaceNews by telephone. In addition, Iridium offers a “truly global network” for ships, including ships traveling along northern sea routes, he added.

Similarly, Inmarsat is working with partners around the world to support autonomous vessel initiatives. Inmarsat partners include Rolls-Royce, Samsung Heavy Industries of South Korea, Japanese and European maritime companies, said Gerbrand Schalkwijk, Inmarsat Maritime’s deputy president. “Companies are working on digitalization,” Schalkwijk told SpaceNews by phone.“How can they remotely manage equipment on ships in a safe and secure way? What bandwidth, software and applications do they need?”

Many remote applications are now possible because new generations of satellites offer far more capability than their predecessors.

At the SMM trade show, Inmarsat announced 5,000 customers have adopted its Fleet Xpress maritime communications service, which offers higher-throughput than its heritage FleetBroadband service.

Fleet Xpress “enables always-on broadband connection with the vessel anywhere in the world,” Schalkwijk said. “It allows companies to start looking at solutions that in the past were not possible because in the past they were not connected or there was not enough bandwidth available.”

Inmarsat also is focused on offering customers their own dedicated and secure communications links with vessels. Rolls-Royce, for example, could connect with a vessel to keep tabs on engine performance, anticipate maintenance tasks or perform firmware upgrades.

At SMM, Inmarsat unveiled Fleet Data, a service that collects various types of data onboard a vessel and transfers them to shore in a secure way.

“Companies can analyze it and make business decisions based on the data from the vessel,” Schalkwijk said. “That’s a stepping stone towards autonomous vessels,” he added.


The Ocean Cleanup System is being assembled in Alameda, California. Credit: The Ocean Cleanup
The Ocean Cleanup System is being assembled in Alameda, California. Credit: The Ocean Cleanup

A satellite connection to ocean trash collection

The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit planning an ambitious campaign to remove trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, will relay data from cameras and sensors on its floating trash collectors through Iridium Communications’ satellite constellation, Iridium announced Sept. 25.

Iridium broadband terminals mounted on tripods at each end of the floating screen will relay imagery from high-definition cameras and data from onboard sensors that detect its position, location and any flooded compartments, said Wouter Deknopper, vice president and general manager for Iridium’s maritime business line.

The Ocean Cleanup plans to deploy 60 floating screens with a total of 120 Iridium broadband terminals in its campaign to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a 1.6 million square kilometer area between California and Hawaii with more than a million of metric tons of plastics and other rubbish.

Reliable communications are critical, Deknopper said. “This is a 600-meter-long floating asset in the middle of the ocean. You need to make sure ships are not traveling over it.”

The Ocean Cleanup began a two-week trial of its first floating screen in mid-September. Once it reviews the results of that test, the Rotterdam-based nonprofit will decide how and when to proceed with its journey toward the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, said Erika Traskvik, the Ocean Cleanup spokeswoman.

In addition to Iridium, the Ocean Cleanup is working with Airbus Defence and Space and Maxar Technologies to evaluate what types of electro-optical and radar satellite data could help it monitor the project, Traskvik said.