Connectivity on the high seas

5 min read
12 Aug 2019
David J. Cord
Ships far out at sea have a great need for connectivity but providing this connectivity has always been a challenge. Wärtsilä’s Smart Marine vision aims to bring the benefits of connectivity to ships no matter where they are in the world.


The phrase “middle of the ocean” immediately evokes an idea of danger and loneliness. It brings to mind being far away from any help or human contact. Yet connectivity is becoming increasingly important for ships no matter where they are on the high seas.

“The shipping industry is very fragmented,” says Eero Tuomikoski, General Manager, Emerging Technologies at Wärtsilä. “The majority of ships work independently with basic safety-driven connectivity. A few segments, such as cruise ships and ferries, are more innovative as their customers prefer to be always connected.”

Globally, the average fleet size is less than five ships. Larger companies and those specialised in carrying people are more likely to be interested in connectivity, while the others are satisfied with the status quo. This is a considerable challenge when building a Smart Marine Ecosystem.

The advantages of being connected

Connectivity on the high seas is not itself a goal; what is important is the benefits connectivity brings.

“If we consider cruise vessels, connectivity allows for new revenue streams such as entertainment and online services,” Tuomikoski says. “Looking at adjacent industries, a small number of airlines use this successfully today for inflight services.”

Yet there are many more advantages to a connected ship which applies to every type of vessel. After all, only a small percentage of ships carry passengers, with the vast majority being used to transport goods and cargo. For these vessels, connectivity helps bring efficiencies that greatly add to the bottom-line.

“One of the main benefits is operating efficiency and lower expenses,” he continues. “For example, dynamic routing can consider weather, currents and traffic and find the most efficient route. We can improve logistics with just-in-time arrival, so ships don’t have to wait outside a harbour before they have a place to dock. With connected equipment, we can use predictive maintenance, prevent problems upfront and minimise unscheduled downtime. Safety is also extremely important. With properly monitored equipment we can improve the safety of the workers and passengers.”

Transas, a part of Wärtsilä’s Voyage Solutions, offers a Fleet Operations Solution which helps bring this connected maritime operational environment to life. It connects the ship, shore operations and traffic control, as well as providing advanced tools to enhance decision making, support and training.

“We have a strong portfolio of connected services for the entire marine industry,” says Tuomikoski. “We are a key enabler to bring these benefits to our customers.”

Connectivity has its downside too. The digitalising maritime industry offers a vast attack surface for Cyber criminals. Wärtsilä together with its partners is prepared and responding to this increasing Cyber threat with its International Maritime Cyber Centre of Excellence (IMCCE) and Maritime Cyber Emergency Response Team (MCERT).

Heading towards satellite-driven connectivity

Communication is one of the fastest developing technologies in the maritime industry with costs dropping and capacity increasing.

Currently, the technologies in use depend upon the coverage needed by the ship. A near-shore ferry might use 3G or 4G, and 5G looks promising for high-density areas such as ports. Far out at sea connectivity relies directly upon satellites.

“The satellite industry supports us with new technology,” Tuomikoski says. “New Low Earth Orbit satellites are a great help, and we have high bandwidth at a good rate coming. The data transfer costs are going down annually, which benefits all users in the industry.”

Two companies – OneWeb and SpaceX – have already begun launching their satellites. Other companies, such as Amazon, have also said they are interested in similar ventures.

Smart Marine vision

Currently, the hardware a ship needs to enable connectivity can be big and expensive, perhaps costing EUR 16,000 or much more for one set-up. However, experts say that over time both size and costs will come down, and soon enough, the IT hardware a ship needs will only be a fraction of the current price.

As things stand, new ships are being designed incorporating connectivity at its core. But the big question that has seized the industry is what to do about older vessels that form the bulk of the global shipping fleet.

“Many new ships being constructed have connectivity in mind, but a bigger challenge is how to get existing vessels connected,” Tuomikoski says. “Retrofits aren’t easy and re-cabling is expensive. That’s why we’re also investigating onboard wireless solutions.”

There are many opportunities for smaller shipping companies to help increase connectivity on existing ships by collaborating with smart marine technology companies. These can then help provide managed IT services, which will be easier and cheaper to manage remotely.

“We are developing rapidly. Soon on the horizon we have remote controlled and autonomous vessels which bring a set of new requirements to connectivity,” Tuomikoski says. “This is all part of our Smart Marine vision to generate more value for our customers.”

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