Championing shipping’s digital transformation with greater connectivity

As shipping demands vast amounts of data to drive sustainability, enhance operational performance, and improve seafarers’ welfare, technology needs to support this evolution. Carole Plessy, head of maritime at OneWeb, shares insight into what hinges on shipping’s digital transformation and the support needed to accelerate progress.

With mounting pressure on the maritime industry from regulatory and non-regulatory drivers to decarbonise while improving commercial performance, shipping’s reliance on new technologies and data insights will inevitably increase to help meet these needs.

In terms of regulation, the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) strategy to reduce CO2 emissions across shipping by at least 40% by 2030 and 70% by 2050 is being reinforced by the introduction of the Energy Efficiency Existing Ship Index rating in 2023 to measure and calculate the energy efficiency performance of most new and existing vessels. At the other end of the spectrum, there are financiers, through the Poseidon Principles, and cargo owners, under the Sea Cargo Charter, who have also intensified pressure to reduce CO2 emissions through efficiencies and new fuels as fleets modernise. In turn, these influences are driving the need for onboard technologies that use and generate more data.

Data and technology are at the heart of maritime’s evolution. As the industry begins to lean on them more to make decisions, optimise operations and reduce emissions, their effectiveness, and therefore ROI, can only be as good as the connectivity that is enabling them. Supporting seafarers’ wellbeing through providing access to social media, voice over data and video calling onboard vessels has anecdotally driven a 100% increase in maritime data alone, albeit in unprecedented circumstances. If that usage is combined with what is needed to support advanced vessel operations, greater connectivity infrastructure must be put in place to support it.

Is it revolution or evolution?

One recurring question that is being asked is whether the digital revolution is moving fast enough. And if not, why not?

In our view, the pace of change is slower than it needs to be. As the future of sustainable freight rates is precarious and asset owning is becoming more complex, small and medium-sized owners are struggling to cost competitively upgrade their digital infrastructure. This is coupled with the perception amongst some that technology is changing so fast that premium-priced solutions will be outdated before the capital expenditure is recouped. This is where being able to demonstrate proof of performance and ROI, as well as pricing services more affordably and flexibly, will be key to boosting accessibility to the myriad of options that are on the market for reducing emissions and improving efficiencies.

Many argue that maritime has already invested in communications services that have not always delivered, which hinders investment and training opportunities for newer, and more capable solutions.

In terms of connectivity, many argue that maritime has already invested in communications services that have not always delivered, which hinders investment and training opportunities for newer, and more capable solutions. There are successful industry players who have invested in satellite communication technology to transfer data from ship to shore, but even some of the largest, most innovative players in the industry could have their ambitions limited by slow and expensive connectivity.

A key barrier has been, until recently, terrestrial-grade connectivity at sea. Internet services for maritime have often been delivered as a low-speed channel with ‘unlimited data’, where quality and speed have been sacrificed to deliver ‘all you can eat’ low-value data. 

This requires ships to share a low-speed single data pipe between crew using social media platforms and critical operational IoT data, such as monitoring systems. Ships don’t receive any higher-speed connections or low latency services for crew, emissions analysis and real-time monitoring, therefore hindering the adoption of otherwise attractive technologies.

Introducing a new era for connectivity 

Access to data use for the maritime industry should be as seamless and simple as it is on land. This mantra underpins OneWeb’s vision for bringing fibre-like connectivity to global offshore and deep-sea operations by the end of 2022 through the development of our Low Earth Orbit satellite network. Being able to offer data speeds that are up to 10x faster than GEO solutions claims, will unlock real-time data exchange between equipment and crews across multiple remote locations at sea and onshore whilst enabling seafarers to use data concurrently for personal use.

It is also important that revolutionising connectivity is inclusive. This means identifying a range of partners to collaborate with to ensure that a range of operators and owners can access these solutions. It also means that the commercials must make sense both in terms of recognising that vessels’ data needs can fluctuate so flexibility should be factored into plans without paying a premium – like we do with our mobile phones – and that hardware requirements are not prohibitive.

The future is now

The fate of shipping’s decarbonisation success is intertwined with the speed of digitalisation. And we cannot underestimate what mammoth challenges they both present. However, as the maritime industry faces mounting pressure from a multitude of external sources to demonstrate its environmental and social progress, shaping the future is happening now.

If digital change, powered by faster, flexible and affordable connectivity, is accelerated, we can realise tangible opportunities. Vessels can use Artificial Intelligence to reduce their environmental impact and reduce costs, vessel optimisation can be faultless, and more data can be provided to power the blue economy and secure the future of our oceans to name a few examples. A significant step must be taken now to move beyond antiquated solutions and communications platforms, and instead more onus should be placed on collaborating with pioneers who can empower the industry to achieve their ambitions. Realising the potential of a truly digital revolution isn’t utopian but can be well within our reach.