Improving Navigation with Maritime Connectivity

  • Posted on: 14 February 2014
  • By: Tony Holland
Yacht with large antenna dome - used under creative commons license:
Yacht with large antenna dome
Lt. M. F. Maury, USN
Lt. M. F. Maury, USN Reproduced from an original painting by Captain Charles Bittinger, USNR, a deceased former member of the Naval Historical Foundation.
historic chart of Boston Harbour - used under creative commons license:
Historic chart of the "Harbour of Boston" from around 1800.

The world is changing course in terms of how we communicate with each other, how we manage our working environment and how new information is generated. It is not difficult for any of us to imagine how we would achieve any of these without connecting with the Internet. For the maritime industry, it is fast becoming a case not of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and ‘how’ to join the Internet revolution. From the navigation point of view, “modern” connectivity will lead to improved situational awareness and better chart updates. As the gathering of accurate navigational data becomes more widespread and routine, this data can be passed on instantly to authorities and other mariners. Crowd sourced depth measurements will one day be incorporated into the chart updating process and ECDIS displays.

Though the terminology may be new, the idea of “crowd sourced bathymetry (CSB)” is not. In the early 1800s, Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury of the US Navy devised a system for gathering ‘Big Data’ on tides, winds and currents using the dozen or so ‘computers’ on his staff (the people used to record data). His early work consisted of scouring the logbooks of thousands of vessels and obliging all navy captains to report the data to his team. The result was a far more effective system of charts and the creation of sea lanes. Subscribers to his system cut their journeys by up to a third. His genius was taking data that no one else thought of any value and putting it to good use. This early form of crowd sourced data contributed significantly to safer and more efficient navigation.

A modern version of Lt. Maury’s ideas are currently being examined by the IHO’s Crowd Sourced Bathymetry initiative. Early implementations of crowd sourced charts are even being produced and distributed by organizations such as TeamSurv. Most CSB efforts reply on single beam echosounders since most commercial ships of opportunity do not have down looking multibeam sonar equipment installed. FarSounder’s customers are unique in that they have a forward looking navigation sonar which offers coverage across a wide field of view (similar to a multibeam). FarSounder has already demonstrated using its equipment in a Forward Looking Multi-Beam (FLMB) mode to build charts with wider coverage than a simple echosounder producing a single depth point directly below the ship. The addition of FLMB data to crowd sourced efforts would enable even more coverage to the surveyed areas (and of course require more connectivity).

The communications costs involved with CSB initiatives are certainly something to consider. Of course, technology marches on far quicker on shore than maritime services can keep up with. However, with an integrated, multi-pronged communication solution, these cost can be kept under control. Different communication channels can be applied based on vessel location and data priority.  For example, relatively expensive L-band satellite technology such as Inmarsat or Iridium can be limited to time critical information, maritime VSAT can be used for reduced costs where coverage is available, 3G can be used near shore, and WIFI can be used when in port for large data uploads.

Additionally, there are new satellite networks being deployed over the next couple of years using the latest High Throughput Satellites in the Ku and Ka band, high speed in shore wireless broadband networks with speeds up to and beyond these levels are growing and 3G/4G networks are reaching further out to sea using signal amplifiers. The arrival of a ten-fold increase in capacity to the satellite pool will increase price competition. And by using a hybrid network ships will have basic Internet capability via satellite on the high seas and will leave the ‘heavy lifting’ to more powerful and cheaper connections in shore.

Resistance to change is inevitable, but Captains always take technology on if they can see a benefit long before legislation catches up. As maritime connectivity increases and their costs decrease, communication with the cloud will improve marine navigation.

About the author: Guest blog author Tony Holland is Director of E3 Group’s Airtime and Contract Services. He helps provide connectivity solutions to commercial and yachting customers. The yacht sector in particular is a keen early adopter of new technologies and concepts as, by definition, most custom yachts are prototypes engaged in pushing technical boundaries.