Elcome Sponsors Discussion of Future Satellite Constellations & Modernizing of GMDSS
Dubai, 13 February 2020 – Elcome International hosted a special meeting of the IMarEST UAE branch to discuss the future of maritime communications. The event was a compelling rendezvous for cross-industry engagement, bringing together 146 Middle East shipowners, marine organizations, commercial enterprises and UAE regulators. Presented by the world’s largest maritime communications manufacturer, the discussion touched on various topics including change, consequent challenges and strategic opportunities within the shipping industry.
Underpinned by their principles of acting responsibly and creating value for their stakeholders, Cobham SATCOM led the discussion providing perspective from a maritime communications manufacturer on two current topics – modernizing Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and future satellite constellations.
In his opening speech, Nikeel Idnani, Honorary Secretary of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology (IMarEST) UAE branch, emphasized the fact that an increase in data transfer between ship and shore represents a ‘hockey stick’ moment for marine communication. He said, “As shipping propels towards an era leveraging on real-time information via satellite communication and as autonomous vessels become a reality, any shipowner considering capitalizing on the first-mover advantage should adopt these emerging technologies. While some technology may currently seem fanciful, rest assured they will shortly be mainstream”.
Mads Ebbesen, Sales Manager Maritime Cobham SATCOM, brought to light wide-ranging communication devices installed onboard ships which have their own Message Transmission Optimization Mechanism with type-specific interface. Cobham is working towards simplifying the user interface by linking everything together with a single screen to display output from any manufacturer’s device onboard. This will allow access to the VHF, Navtex, Inmarsat-C, AIS and other systems on the bridge, on the wings, in the Captain’s office and perhaps remote access/remote control from shore. However, due to highly regulated equipment with unique standards, this integration is challenging. Towards this end, Cobham has managed to make incremental progress on the navigation side with the SAILOR 6004 control panel which is a multi-display that can show Navtex, AIS and GNSS on a generic touch screen. Yet, due to SOLAS requirement of redundancy, reliability and expandability, each application and each product needs one screen per application. While they may be linked and all screens may display the same information simultaneously, 3 boxes = 3 screens.
The EU-funded EfficienSea2 project was led by the Danish Maritime Authority with 32 dedicated partner countries to create innovative solutions for efficient, safe and sustainable traffic at sea by focusing on global collaboration and more use of shared IT-standards in maritime digitalization. Together, they have transformed international standards and made solutions available to end users. Ebbesen illustrated an example of bridge integration with Cobham SATCOM parts connected to a Danelec server. This connected network can be accessed from devices on board as well as from shore. As he explained, progress like this was an evolution, not revolution.
On ‘new mega constellations and what they mean for the maritime community’, Ebbesen explained SOLAS Chapter IV describes the requirement for all merchant ships to comply with the minimum safety norms laid down for radio communications, e.g. GMDSS, SART, EPIRB and other devices. From 1 January 2024 a new modernized GMDSS will be in force. Additional to SOLAS, more than 60 resolutions and circulars are to be reviewed as a part of the update process in which Cobham SATCOM is involved as an antenna manufacturer. Essentially, the update of the regulations is aimed at making the required equipment more versatile and potentially useful on board. He clarified to the audience that it is about expanding the options not complicating the regulation.
Besides Inmarsat, other recognized mobile satellite service operators approved by IMO e.g. Iridium will be permitted. Practically, this means a ship owner may upgrade existing Inmarsat C to SOLAS GMDSS units from Inmarsat or Iridium.
As of the beginning of 2019, nearly 5000 satellites surround our planet in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Geo Stationary Orbit (GEO). Satellites in LEO are the closest, between 500 to 1000 miles above the Earth’s surface, making them ideal for satellite phone and GPS communication as the relatively shorter distance means there is a minimal delay between data leaving the satellite and reaching its target on Earth, usually about 0.05 seconds. It takes a lot of LEO satellites to cover the planet, which is why there are so many of them up there. Real estate value in LEO is increasing rapidly, and it’s cheap to get up there, leading to a race to stake claim before the lanes are too crowded. The Iridium Communications Network consists of 66 satellites total, while the Starlink constellation will include nearly 12,000 satellites once they’ve all launched, though they won’t all be in LEO. The rules here too are evolving. The Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency of the United States government, has set a requirement that half of the approved satellites need to be in place before end of 2024, and the rest before end of 2027. The UN’s International Telecommunication Union stipulates that an assigned frequency needs to be in use within 7 years.
In conclusion, Ebbesen reassured participants that whatever orbits and frequency bands the future will bring, under the SAILOR and Sea Tel brands, Cobham SATCOM is LEO/MEO ready. He was hopeful that ship owners in the room realized the drivers behind the future success of the maritime sector and where their investments need to go.
In commenting on the seminar, Jimmy Grewal, executive director of Elcome, said: “There is an exciting future ahead of us as these new disruptive technologies open new capabilities that will transform the marine telecoms industry; and Elcome – with partners like Cobham SATCOM – will be at the forefront of this revolution. This technical seminar from IMarEST was an important first step to raise awareness of these important issues.”
There was active participation from the 146-member audience during the ensuing Q&A session. The evening concluded with a generous raffle draw and a gala dinner hosted by Elcome, Cobham’s distribution and technical service partner, on the rooftop of the swanky Marriott Al Jaddaf in the leading maritime metropolis of the Middle East.