Tag Archives: IMO

Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers promotes shipping to the next generation on World Maritime Day

ICS shield - Copy (623x800)Institute joins IMarEST and the Merchant Navy Training Board to share the story of shipping with primary school children at IMO headquarters

London, September 22, 2015. The Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, the maritime industry’s only body dedicated to professional education, is spreading the story of shipping to primary school students as part of the International Maritime Organization’s World Maritime Day celebrations.

The Institute will take part in the first of two open mornings on September 22 and 23, which will see London schoolchildren visit IMO headquarters to learn about the role of shipping in delivering goods and services around the world.

The World Maritime Day theme for 2015 was chosen in order to focus attention on the wide spectrum of maritime education and training employed as the bedrock of a safe and secure shipping industry. These are resources which the IMO believes are vital to preserve the quality, practical skills and competence of qualified human resources and to ensure the industry’s sustainability.

Director of the Institute Julie Lithgow, says the open mornings are a good example of how the industry should engage with a diverse audience to increase wider understanding of the importance of shipping.

“The Institute plays a central role in professional education and training in shipping but we also believe in spreading the message about the importance of our industry as widely as possible. Through the open morning, we will share a positive message about shipping and help the next generation to understand the role it plays in all our lives.”

The Institute, together with IMO, IMarEST and the MNTB has produced an educational activity booklet ‘The World of Shipping’ which introduces the children to the industry. The booklet includes a foreword from IMO Secretary-General Koji Sekimizu in addition to puzzles on trade routes, ship types and flags.

The Institute plays a unique role in the shipping industry, with deep roots in the City of London and a diverse membership in established and emerging maritime centres. Students anywhere in the world can sit its exams with the examination centre and an invigilator provided by the Institute. Julie Lithgow adds:

“The IMO’s theme for World Maritime Day struck a deep chord with us and we knew straightaway we wanted to be involved. The primary school children we will engage with are too young to be thinking about their careers, but we believe in encouraging the clever, committed, curious and engaged people into shipping and that can never start too young.”


Notes to Editors
The Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers (ICS) was established in 1911 and received Royal Charter in 1920. It is the only internationally recognised professional educational body in the maritime arena and represents shipbrokers, ship managers and agents worldwide. ICS is based in the heart of the City of London and has 25 branches in key shipping locations worldwide with 4,000 individual and 120 company members. ICS membership represents a commitment to maintaining the highest professional standards across the shipping industry.


Yes, we are holding our breath

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted a link to a BBC news story on the Triton operation that has taken over from Mare Nostrum monitoring, rescuing and landing migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy.

What struck me was the parallel to the Somalia piracy crisis at its height: a handful of small ships attempting to patrol a huge area, except this time in pursuit of people that want to be found. The Twittersphere inexplicably overlooked my missive but I didn’t think this would be the last of it.

It seems the similarity was not lost on IMO either. In assembling representatives from organisations with more acronyms between them than could fill a Scrabble bag, it is encouraging a faster and more concerted response than was managed to piracy.

This is because of, rather than despite the fact that ‘mixed migration’ of refugees from the conflicts, instability and economic chaos of the Middle East has seen an unprecedented increase in both attempted crossings and resulting deaths.

It would be simplistic to say that each of the statements, from IMO to the International Organization for Migration was fundamentally that ‘something must be done’ but that is the literal truth of the situation.

Mixed migration is risky to the merchant ships that are obliged to divert and often deadly for the refugees. It is a political hand grenade for Italy in particular and European governments in general given the near-hysterical statements about immigration rolled out in pursuit of votes.

The threat, floated last week by a particularly cynical security provider, that Islamic State might be about to bring Jihad to Mediterranean waters cannot be completely discounted. The suspicion that along with genuine refugees, Europe is importing the next generation of radicalised terrorists sits uneasily in the back of the mind.

Yet every speaker had something valid to say, most memorably about the bigger migration story that shipping in the eastern Med finds itself by dint of circumstance. Similar large scale, unsafe migrations are underway across the Americas, Middle East Gulf and Asia as a great wave of population seeks to escape poverty, violence, war or all three.

So something must be done – but what? Legal barriers are nothing of the sort when the refugees have nothing to lose. Disincentives are tricky when the international community is unable to make countries of origin safe, stable or prosperous enough for the population to remain there.

Dedicated reception facilities would be start and even some kind of reception vessels, since as was pointed out more than once, the risks of a crossing do not act as a brake on ambitions, but perhaps the risks can be mitigated with specialist resources.
Without a doubt more capacity is needed for Triton, though which governments have personnel and resources to spare is another question entirely.

As ICS secretary general Peter Hinchliffe pointed out at the session’s end, the wait for a co-ordinated response to piracy was almost interminable. When it came, it rested upon three pillars: government action, best industry practice and capacity building in Somalia.

African piracy has not disappeared but the approach largely worked and similar action is needed here, though Hinchliffe said the industry is ‘still only at the lobbying stage’ on the migration issue.

While the lobbying continues, Europeans will to continue to read headlines concerning the needless deaths of people who mostly want to enjoy the same standards of living and human rights as we do.

The template exists for action and remedy on unsafe migration. Over to you, UN agencies and all governments concerned. And this time, we are holding our breath.

PS – I wrote this originally for Splash 24/7 the new website from Asia Shipping Media. For more news and comments click here.

Safety divided by competition won’t go

There have been some puzzling headlines in the past week or so following the decision by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to give recognition to the bid by satellite services provider Iridium to run the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System.

The IMO sub-committee on Navigation, Communications, Search and Rescue (NSCR) gave the nod to Iridium’s pitch, which will be subject to approval by the Maritime Safety Committee, though probably not before 2016.

It’s true to say that the surprise has been pretty evenly-distributed around the industry. Certainly, there will have been something close to bewilderment at the headquarters of INMARSAT, which runs GMDSS under mandate from the IMO and which will have been lobbying hard to get the proposal squashed.

The surprise in communications circles is largely due to the apparent mis-match between the requirement the IMO places on INMARSAT for GMDSS uptime of 99.99% and the performance of the existing Iridium network.

Despite its somewhat chequered history: a big launch, a spell in Chapter 11, rescue by the US Department of Defence, and resurgence as the appetite for low cost communications broke over shipping – ship owners like Iridium. The products themselves are cheap and cheerful; Iridium was among the first to identify the potential for what was then called “commodity voice communications” – selling handsets and airtime that could keep seafarers in touch at very low per minute rates.

This was because Iridium needed something to do with its global network of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites in addition to the capacity that the US military was using. In time, data products followed and the same principle applied – they were cheap, easy to use and easy to fix when broken.

This was good for owners who didn’t want to spend a lot on their communications but just needed something on board. The data transfer rates weren’t high either but the owners weren’t necessarily worried.

Slightly more problematic was that its network of LEO satellites – rather more complex than a handset – had an equally creaky reputation in practice. Iridium’s engineers have done admirable work prolonging the working life of its constellation but even with the use of spares, outages are a regular occurrence. Since 2001, iridium has lost 10 satellites from its 66 strong constellation, nine from technical failures, one a collision.

Its fiercest critics say that in areas of greatest ship congestion, heavy demand results in the network being unable to cope and like a weak Wi-Fi signal in a conference room, the contention is such that no-one gets any service.

This must be subject to some question, since Iridium services still sell well, but no hardware manufacturer or service provider is likely to admit that any delicate shipboard technology, whether comms or navigation, is subject to operational failure. You have to talk to seafarers to get to hear that and normally they make you buy them lots of beer first.

But it is important in the light of the sub-committee’s decision because GMDSS is not a commercial service but rather a safety one, mandated by the IMO and one that all SOLAS ships are required to fit and maintain. For that to happen, the IMO demands a level of uptime that the current Iridium constellation appears unable to achieve.

No doubt Iridium is able to produce statistics that confirm it hits 99.99% availability, just as its rivals can produce data saying the opposite, but it is the spread between what its commercial service can manage and the IMO-mandated requirement that raises eyebrows.

Incumbent GMDSS operator INMARSAT has been left spluttering by the decision, which it presumably believes rather undermines the goals it has been set in providing GMDSS since 1979. INMARSAT has also formally unveiled its own evolution of GMDSS, called the Maritime Data Safety Service (MSDS) which will “upgrade” the service onto more its modern I-4 satellites.

Iridium plans a similar development and wants to launch an entirely new network, NEXT comprising 72 satellites from 2015 onwards, with service availability from 2017 onwards. Its key differentiator here is the polar coverage its current and future networks can provide and Inmarsat’s cannot. Iridium will need to get capacity utilisation on this new network too – it plans aeronautical in addition to maritime and land services for NEXT and will need to keep pace with the next generation VSAT and HTS services that will be in place by then.

It appears that the potential for ship traffic in the Polar Regions was among the swaying evidence considered at the IMO. Whether or not the growth potential of the Northern Sea Route is really enough to convince the MSC that this makes enough of a difference is questionable enough in itself. A recent survey by consultants PWC of German ship owners found that 60% saw no fresh opportunities from the NSR’s opening up.

What is far more dangerous surely is for any would-be operator to view GMDSS as a prize, an opportunity that has for too long been under the control of one of its rivals. Some of the coverage of the IMO decision (to say nothing of the comments on social media sites that specialise in pushing commercial interests over public ones) suggest just that.

No-one can credibly assert that Inmarsat has “control” of a service that it was created to deliver under the mandate of the IMO. GMDSS has nothing to do with commercial maritime services like broadband, VSAT or HTS. It is a public service dedicated to the safety of the world’s 1.5m seafarers.

Should the provision of such a service be subject to competition and to the vagaries of national interests? Or should any future decision instead be based on the facts and made in the light of day. Assuming that the IMO has not changed its baseline of 99.99% network uptime, does the proposed service meet the requirement or not?

My editor at BIMCO kindly added the following clarification to the article as published on its website.

Editor’s Note: The NCSR Sub-Committee agreed to invite the MSC to consider and decide on which independent body should produce a technical and operational assessment of the information and provide a report to the sub-committee for evaluation. Following receipt and evaluation of the assessment, the sub-committee would then make a recommendation to the MSC as to the adoption of an MSC resolution recognising the new maritime mobile satellite services provider.

Is technology sexist? ‘course not darling…

Ada Lovelace was the first female geek. Nowadays acclaimed as the equal of mathematical innovator Charles Babbage, it took decades for her to achieve recognition for writing the first algorithm for Babbage’s mechanical leviathan, the Difference Engine.

Even so, she’s hardly a household name, unlike the boys that mostly run tech businesses these days or the men who dot the history of information technology. Rather illustrating the point, the fact that it was Ada Lovelace Day last week passed me by, but then I guess I’m not really the target market.

The reason for coming upon this Google-inspired flight of fancy was my ruminating on Barista Uno’s recent post on the Marine Café blog bemoaning the lack of women in senior positions in the shipping industry.

There is nothing much new in that, more’s the pity, though his observations underline an acknowledged truth that shipping is as institutionally unbalanced as any other industry. Should we worry about this?

I think yes for a couple of reasons but let’s also keep some perspective. The evidence from Norway, where a quota system is in effect, suggests that legislation is not necessarily the best route to having the right people in the right jobs.

We can all think of examples where people are in roles they are unsuited to or unqualified for and there seems little point in exacerbating the problem by bringing gender into the mix.

But – and it’s a big but – to assume that the status quo is acceptable would be a massive error. There are women in shipping technology and the ones I have come across tend to be hard scientists – I’m thinking of Anne-Marie Warris and Gillian Reynolds both ex-LR and Kirsi Tikka at ABS.

Tikka is a classic example of how to succeed by trying. An egalitarian Finn and engineer by training she cheerfully admits to enjoying her stint at Turku shipyards getting her hands dirty, experience which clearly served her well in corporate life too.

Interviewed for Fairplay earlier this year, Tikka made a prescient comment that avoided all the obvious gender politics about whether the current situation is acceptable or merely unavoidable.

While no fan of positive discrimination, she suggested that if you have one gender in the room, not only are you lacking half the available brain power, but those people will naturally tend towards agreement, because at root, they approach problems in a similar way.

I was reminded of this when reading Uno’s blog and also in calling to mind presentations I have sat through on the Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) and specifically the issue of their displays and functionality being designed, apparently in a series of vacuums. There are multiple manufacturers and no common ground – despite the Nautical Institute’s tireless calls for an ‘S-mode’ that would enable mariners to put the ECDIS into a base mode that any mariner would recognise.

I may get brickbats thrown for this, but the point I think we need to consider is that men and women approach IT in particular in quite different ways.

Given a piece of IT, men will normally never bother reading the manual but attempt to figure it out by trial and error, setting it up and making it work. Women, (well OK, my wife) take a very different approach.

She wants to understand why the designer made certain choices, how best to approach the functionality and what the limitations and strengths are. This can be quite frustrating – anyone who has tried to read a modern instruction manual knows how impenetrable they can be – and sometimes impossible. Apple devices for example have all but dispensed with instructions, so intuitive is the interface.

But the point is that unlike myself, who will fiddle and make do, her attitude to technology is actually more rigorous, more enquiring, than mine.

How much better might ECDIS for example have been, with a design team that included a broad range of input: different races and both genders that sought to prioritise the over-riding mission – safer navigation – above the desire to include fancy functionality. Yes, the technology continues to advance but in the same vacuum, or at least without any overall guiding principle other than the IMO performance standard.

There are senior female members of the major committees at IMO but I suspect that the technical decisions are made by a cohort of men, as they will tend to be those with the greater direct experience or academic specialisations.

But as last week’s BBC story reported, the lack of young women studying science and pursuing it as a career is not just a waste of talent – in the UK, it is a genuine skills gap that needs to be closed. How much better would maritime technology be if those having input to its creation represented 100% of the available talent, rather than only 49?

It’s going to be about the data – but whose?

The future of shipping will in part, be about data. Big data. We know this because there are a lot of people telling us so. And some of them are in a position to influence outcomes. When the IMO secretary-general held a Symposium on Ship Safety ahead of the most recent Maritime Safety Committee, the role of the human factor, development of new technology and the importance of data were the big takeaways.

In order to update the SOLAS Convention, the industry is going to have to take advantage of the computing power that was not available in 1974 to design a set of rules that are fit for the 21st century.

The data requirement will be huge and that’s to say nothing of the data already being collected and crunched in the cause of operational efficiency for existing ships.

It’s an accepted part of the HTS story that more and faster bandwidth will finally unlock the potential for data gathering from across the ship. As Roger Adamson noted in his recent post here, the vessel of the future could be sentient; self-correcting and diagnostic. Many believe that it could be semi-autonomous too, if not completely remote-controlled with streams of data flowing back and forth.

For some owners that will probably be the case – the industry tends to lead the regulators of course – but the regulators are probably the ones with greater long term influence.

But what happens when, for example, the IMO, class societies and their consultants come calling for shipping’s big data in the cause of shared safety aims? Surely it can’t have escaped the notice of canny owners that the data that their ships produce is going to go up in value as more and more people seek to analyse and interpret it.

Owners might already have a clear understanding of the need to secure and licence that data if want to gain the maximum value from it themselves. The premium being paid for Ecoship design newbuildings and the Rosetta Stone of performance improvement from energy saving devices both suggest that this data, applied correctly, could make a competitive difference to a shipowner in good times or bad.

And there is a clear precedent here from consumer markets, where we are only just beginning to understand the value of our data, both that which we have already given away and that which internet companies yet want us to provide.

It’s a topic discussed in an interview with technology analyst Horace Dediu who makes the point that internet businesses, which are mostly about data, have two models, “one where everybody consumes but pays in metadata and another where everybody consumes aggregated analytics but pays in cash”.

The arbitrage that takes place as the internet business exploits that inefficiency tends not to be very sustainable as information leaks across markets.

Dediu adds that “what would blow the internet up is if consumers could become wiser about what they are giving up and advertisers would become wiser about aggregating consumer data.”

Transpose that to shipowner and IT consultant and the same applies: the former might start off giving up data because they are unaware of its value but as it starts to become apparent what innovations and opportunities flow from design and operational data, then the price to the ‘buyer’ will rise – fall and rise again. Shipping is cyclical after all.

Dediu imagines a system where individual consumers would allow bids on their consumption with bidders ‘competing for data’.

The issue for shipping is that this data has not been priced yet so arbitrage opportunities exist. The data originators might see that as their opportunity not only to make some money but to monetise the data for themselves. If the pendulum swung too far the other way and owners and yards decided that what they have is too valuable to share, Mr Sekimizu’s plans for a new data-driven Solas Convention might be impacted.

“This of course depends on users taking control and ownership of their own data,” Dediu adds. “What might help is the realisation of what mass state surveillance can do and the realisation that internet giants have more information about us than the government could ever hope to possess.”

Shipping technology providers are no Google, no Facebook or Microsoft, but those that want to trade the emerging market for shipping data will no doubt be drawing up their strategies.

Futurenautics, e-nautics and the shape of maritime technology to come…

Research considering the future of shipping is flavour of the moment, but argues guest columnist Roger Adamson of Stark Moore McMillan, it fails to get to grips with technology. Luckily there’s an App for that…

Earlier this year, Lloyd’s Register together with Qinetiq and the University of Strathclyde published the Global Marine Trends 2030 report. Ambitious and fascinating, the report took two years of research to produce and maps out a variety of potential global future scenarios in trade, politics and social development. Assessing their respective impacts upon the commercial maritime industry, it goes on to provide some insights into what shipping might look like in 2030.

It’s an interesting read, but flawed in a couple of really fundamental respects. Firstly, the report simply reinforces the idea that shipping’s cyclical bi-polar economic rollercoaster is beyond its control. Published at a time when shipping is experiencing the worst downturn in memory, no doubt this is a comforting message for many.

However, this downturn has done more to expose the often antiquated business processes and practices of shipping which are increasingly recognised as bearing significant responsibility for the industry’s woes. There are vast opportunities to improve strategy, margin and operational efficiency, and almost all of them are related to technology. Which is where the GMT2030 report really falls down.

Focussing exclusively on the global drivers external to maritime – geopolitical, economic, environmental and demographic – the report recognises technology only as a constituent part of national economics. Describing technology as ‘an enabler not a driver’ for commercial maritime, the report concludes that technological innovation such as actuators and sensors, robotics, behavioural algorithms and 3-D printing are so unforeseeable, and have such massive consequences that they rank alongside global economic collapse.

GMT2030 paints a future picture of a shipping and maritime industry as passive reactor to global drivers and circumstances, demonstrating no significant change or innovation. It sets aside the impact of new technology as disruptive but unknown, its potential implications so profound that they are incapable of being modelled. This maritime future is a depressing one. Whilst the world changes around it, shipping remains, essentially, the same.

But the reality is likely to be profoundly different. Far from being unforeseeable technology trends are already changing the complexion of shipping and business with the pace of change accelerating. From new HTS satellites to M2M or ‘The Internet of All Things’, cloud computing, nanotechnology, smart materials and the e-volution of business it is already possible to spot the maritime future on the horizon.

The transition to new, digital and technological-based standards of operation and monitoring within the maritime space being driven by regulation, commercial necessity and global change can be term ‘e-nautics’. The ‘e-nautic’ agenda comprises IMO’s move towards e-navigation and ECDIS mandation, increased use of voyage optimisation and routing software to reduce fuel costs, and the rising implementation of applications designed to streamline operations and integrate better with customer requirements and systems.

To date regulation has been the prime driver of innovation within maritime and specifically in complying with Marpol, Solas, STCW and the MLC but future mandates are challenges which can increasingly only be met by the intelligent deployment of technology solutions. (Indeed, the failure of regulations like the Ballast Water Management Convention to work as expected can be directly traced to getting the technology/problem cart/horse in the wrong order. Seemp, asset optimisation and the promised re-write of Solas have a direct technology link – but both are another story – Ed).

But for an industry considered to be operating ‘in the stone age’ by business analysts, the real opportunities, and threats, of the accelerating pace of global technological change to shipping and maritime companies have yet to be properly identified and addressed.

Far from being a sci-fi scenario, Manufacturing 3.0 is already here. 3-D printing technology – which has the potential to decimate the container shipping business model – is already being deployed by motor manufacturers and giants like GE for aero engine manufacture. (See in particular the most recent Economist Technology Quarterly – http://www.economist.com/technology-quarterly/2013-09-07 for evidence of that – Ed)

Stark Moore McMillan calls this technology-enabled maritime future Futurenautics. Grouped around four key trends, The Sentient Ship, The Cyborg Crew, Shipistics and Business e-volution, Futurenautics includes IT-enabled trends and converging technologies both inside and outside shipping.

In order to equip senior shipping and maritime leaders and stakeholders with information and contextual analysis of these trends and the threats and opportunities they hold, a new resource by the same name is launching this autumn.

The shipping industry will change, but the extent to which it is the master of its own destiny lies in the hands of this and the coming generation of shipping and maritime leaders. In order to be successful those at the helm of maritime businesses need to be looking across their organisations at the impacts, threats and opportunities from a technology paradigm. It is crucial that they are encouraged and helped to understand how this should shape their future strategies.

I’ll take a deeper dive into the four key trends, the underlying technologies, impacts and threats in a future guest article.

To register for your free digital launch copy of the quarterly Futurenautics journal, please visit www.futurenautics.com.

Lights out for the territory

During last week’s Nor-Shipping when the talk was mostly of offshore support vessels and optimisation, a small but significant nugget slipped into the public domain. Amid all the kite-flying about Arctic shipping, sub-sea risk management and the Northern Sea Route, it emerged that this week’s Maritime Safety Committee at the IMO will include a submission by the United States on behalf of Iridium.

In the typically windy prose of the IMO, the submission notifies the committee that it intends to ask the newly-merged NCSR sub-committee (formerly NAV and COMSAR) to verify that the Iridium satellite constellation meets the criteria necessary to be used for the Global Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) and that the sub-committee recommends that the MSC recognises the system for such use.

What the committee makes of this remains to be seen. But presumably the distinguished delegates’ attention will first be drawn to the assertion that the Iridium constellation provides ‘at least 99% availability’.

Making this submission may require something of a procedural waiver since there is disagreement across the industry as to whether the Iridium network does indeed achieve this magic number.

This is not the first time that Iridium has tilted at the right to run GMDSS in addition to incumbent Inmarsat. When I shared the news with a maritime journalist at Nor-Shipping, their reaction was ‘oh no, not again’.

Why now appears to be the key question and the answer appears to be topical: concerns by the US Coast Guard that coverage of the polar regions is too patchy to give it the level of security it seeks as the ice retreats and the Northern Sea Route opens up to summer shipping.

Anyone attending the Nor-Shipping event in Oslo last week would identify with that, but it is important to remember that such conditions are not expected before 2050, depending on the rate of growth of CO2 emissions.

Last year there were less than 40 transits of the NSR – though that level has grown fast – and pundits who fancy themselves Arctic experts like to talk of days to be shaved off the Asia-Europe run by transiting the pole. Sober heads are less sure, pointing to the Russian attitudes to ‘cost recovery’ the lack of port infrastructure, pilotage, icebreaking tonnage and digital charts as potential icebergs.

Not to mention the fact that cutting service times for containerised cargoes would pretty much denude the existing supply chain and cause more stress to earnings. In wet and dry bulk it would rip up the tonne-mile rulebook too but that’s another story.

So the question again – why now? Perhaps the answer is more about building visibility and credibility in the next few years as Iridium seeks to raise the money needed to build and launch IridiumNext. And IridiumNext would probably be a stronger platform on which to build a GMDSS-capable network.

It’s no insult to call the current constellation the Ford F150 of maritime satellite – in fact it’s a compliment. It’s cheap, plentiful, easy to work with and users like it, though reliability is not all it should be by some accounts. Is that the criteria for a global maritime safety service? Practical concerns aired around the industry include whether the coverage is uniform enough to support GMDSS.

Sources at the MSC say that Inmarsat has wasted no time in writing to delegates welcoming competition (they would say that wouldn’t they) but pointing out that such competition will have to based on a level playing field.
Inmarsat spends an estimated $5m a year on network administration of GMDSS and has said it wants to continue investing to provide the service at a claimed 99.99%.

Its own figures show Iridium achieving no better than 96.2% in 2012 and presumably thinks that the criteria it must meet to operate GMDSS is being waived on Iridium’s behalf. It’s in the way of things that Iridium will doubtless contest those numbers and probably accuse Inmarsat of manipulating its own.

One way or the other, the committee must either be assured or change the starting criteria. Detail is what the Maritime Safety Committee is there for and there surely can be no surprise if it asks Iridium to either work on its performance or come back when Next is available.

What will be interesting to see is whether Inmarsat reacts accordingly and puts in place a plan for improved polar coverage in future. This last remaining gap is also being eyed by Telenor and KVH. The former has coverage planned in support of Norwegian offshore ambitions and the latter recently struck a deal with Iridium to use it as back up for ships sailing out of VSAT coverage, not for the first time either.

The irony of this situation is not that Inmarsat is concerned by a competitor muscling in on its (IMO-mandated) territory. It is that the same competitors who accuse Inmarsat of sharp practice, clearly sense an opportunity to get one over on the old lady by resorting to a little ‘diplomacy’ of their own.


Crew retention is the tip of the digital iceberg

Almost 12 months ago an ambitious project began to take shape. Roger Adamson of Stark Moore Macmillan, Vizada (now Astrium Services) and two of the largest crewing agencies in the world, Philippine Transmarine Carriers and CF Sharp, joined forces to embark on the most comprehensive survey of crew and their attitudes towards and use of communications at sea ever undertaken.

The resulting report has generated considerable interest. But while Adamson says it is encouraging to see so many shipmanagers and operators recognising the operational benefits of improved communications from a crew retention perspective, in this guest blog, he lays out why he believes there is a wider opportunity which comparatively few in the industry are really grasping.

Considering the enduring importance of crew retention it may seem surprising that until last year no organisation had commissioned definitive independent research into the communications requirements and habits of seafarers.

However, when confronted with the logistics of reaching, collecting and analysing the written, paper responses of almost 1,000 officers and ratings, this lack of comprehensive research becomes rather more understandable.

Key to any research project is the quality of the data and the sample. Had we not been working with PTC and CF Sharp which between them send over 47,000 crew each year to over 1,000 vessels in the commercial cargo and passenger sectors, it is unlikely such a survey would have been possible.

It certainly wouldn’t have produced such high quality data and responses. With the total market for satellite based crew communications estimated at approximately 925,000 individuals, our sample represents in the region of 1% of the market – making the dataset both fascinating and statistically significant.

One of the headline results has been that 68% of seafarers now have access to communications whilst at sea either all or most of the time with only 2% reporting that they never have access to communications. However those headline figures mask a wide variance between different sectors. For instance the passengership sector, despite having the highest levels of communications equipment on board, provides the lowest levels of free crew communications of any sector.

In common with the passenger sector, offshore vessels have very high levels of equipment, but neither of these are principally driven by crew communications requirements. For the passenger sector, high-bandwidth communications systems are major revenue generators with the penetration of VSAT extremely high.

Similarly, the offshore sector is well penetrated with VSAT systems as charterer requirements dictate high-bandwidth be available, but in contrast to the passenger sector, offshore vessels offer far better access to free and paid-for communications, most likely a reflection of the scarcity of qualified offshore crew.

Across the sectors 46% of crew are not provided with any form of free communications at all. In the context of crew retention that figure should be raising eyebrows.

As a regular speaker at the Informa Manning & Training conference, where this year I’ve been asked to speak to delegates in Dubrovnik about crew communications, I consistently hear managers and operators wrestling with the issue of crew retention.

I’m repeatedly being told that the expense of training crew means that retaining them offers real dollar savings and competitive advantage. When one considers the noise VSAT has been making over the past several years it is curious that we are still in a situation where almost half of all seafarers have no access to free communications, when the ability to provide them with such would not only assist in their retention, but also offer broader opportunities to ship managers and operators.

I think this is where the real issues lie. Traditionally the expense of satellite communications together with the necessity for robust equipment and reliability in an environment where mission-critical literally equates to life and death, has always meant failure wasn’t an option and experimentation challenging.

As one of the most regulated industries in the world, shipping is about compliance and meeting minimum requirements. In many respects it is a unique industry, but it is not immune from the digital revolution which has swept up every other.

With the IMO advocating an over-arching e-navigation strategy combining ECDIS with new technologies converging across navigation, IT and communications, the landscape of maritime business is changing fast.

The opportunities for forward thinking ship managers and operators are highly significant, but unlocking maritime’s digital promise will require a major shift in thinking. IT, communications and digital technologies have the potential to drive cost savings, service improvements and the all-important crew retention.

In my experience shipmanagers and operators are hungry to understand how and where their businesses can implement and benefit from these changes, but as yet suppliers aren’t creating the cross-businesses value propositions to help them.

By commissioning the Crew Communications 2012 survey Astrium have signaled their intention to address this need. The wealth of information it has provided to shipmanagers and operators about the crew they depend upon is extremely valuable, but it’s only the beginning of what’s required.

Case studies have always been the primary tool in the maritime salesperson’s armoury, but what’s needed now are more independent, in-depth studies and analysis which can inform both suppliers, and ship managers and operators.

The advent of new High Throughput Satellite systems, from Intelsat EPIC to Inmarsat’s GlobalXpress, O3B to Iridium NEXT, means bandwidth and speeds will accelerate further. But without the context of operational implementation and potential cost efficiencies these systems are just adding a new level of complexity for ship managers and operators.

We are approaching an era of real technology convergence in maritime which has the potential to transform the industry for the better. Doing so will require technology suppliers to gain a far more holistic and in-depth understanding of the shipping business. And for ship managers and operators to help them.

A condensed version of the Stark Moore McMillan report, Crew Communications 2012 is available for download from here.

Eyes on the future of e-Navigation

How far we are looking ahead in the maritime industry is a topic I’ve tried to unpack over the last couple of weeks and the results so far have conformed more to short term problem-solving than long term strategic needs.

So it was a matter of good timing that the Economist included an article on eye tracking in its technology quarterly around the same time as the recent DigitalShip Athens event. As the Economist observed, the ability to use neuroscience to track the behaviour of consumers is already providing marketers with invaluable data on how to package and position brands.

But the applications go far beyond how we choose our breakfast cereal. In the US, eye tracking is already being used to alert drivers in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Disabled people can use it to operate computers and wheelchairs and surgeons can use it as a ‘third hand’ to control robotic equipment. Naturally there are military applications too but typically there was no mention of shipping.

That made the presentation by Dr. Nikitas Nikitakos, Professor, Dept. of Shipping Trade and Transport, University of the Aegean to DS Athens the more timely. Dr Nikitakos’ group is using the principles of neuroscience to study the usability and ergonomics of bridge equipment, in particular to assess how bridge staff would work with the IMO’s e-Navigation programme which promises more screens and machines on the bridge of the future.

Once this might have been a blue-sky technology but the falling cost of equipment makes its application to business and consumer markets increasingly practical.

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. Traditionally a branch of biology it has been transformed by the application of computer engineering to cover chemistry, mathematics, linguistics, medicine and applied sciences. And there is plenty to study, since the nervous system is the most complex organ system in body: the brain alone is home to 100m neurons and 100 trn synapses.

At the University of the Aegean, cognitive neuroscience is being used to study the affect of external conditions on the nervous system, such as what attracts the user’s attention, what changes their perception and what activity or processes take place during decision making. One outcome of the research will be to develop interactive technologies that can benefit from cognitive ergonomics. Understanding how the bridge team operates means that the design and position of equipment can be improved.

But Dr Nikitakos says ergonomics is more than just maritime feng shui. It is crucial in managing the health, safety and mental workload of bridge teams and he hopes to produce guidance how to evaluate the optimum installation of equipment on the bridge.

“Cognitive neuroscience employs three means of assessment; experiential verification, operational definition and repetition and uses tools such as eye tracking, MRI, speech sentiment analysis and facial analysis to understand the effect of their environment on the subject,” he explains.

His group focuses mainly on using a specially-designed helmet to track the gaze of a subject’s eyes across bridge equipment as well as employing speech recorders to process voice commands onboard.

Capturing the needs of the user is at the heart of e-Navigation and Dr Nikitakos believes usability will be key to getting personnel to adapt to the new equipment and systems they might be using.

“We are defining usability in terms of ISO standards as the extent to which equipment can be used to achieve specific goals effectively and efficiently. For marine usability, we are focussing tests on evaluating usability of specific products for real users,” he says.

In practice, this means evaluating usability and ergonomic set-up on the bridge for each command position, as well as issues such as the quality of colours used in displays. He thinks equipment manufacturers and bridge designers could use the outputs from the research results to model modes of interactivity and how to assist command functions and improve teamwork while minimising stress.

The research takes a mixed – and practical – approach, assessing inputs such as GPS, ECDIS and steering control and working with maritime academies in simulator situations supplemented by questionnaires and interviews.

The university is also working with a Japanese research team attached to the IMO’s e-Navigation sub-committee which is adding neuroscience to its observations and develop more robust data, examining the differences between cadets and expert users and between nationalities and genders – and  suggesting what may need to be modified to improve usability.

As Dr Nikitakos points out the University of the Aegean is far from the first institution to study how neuroscience can measure behaviour and suggest improvements to usability, but he says his group is the first to consider the this technology in terms of the maritime sector. But presumably there will be more people keeping an eye on it now.

You’ve never had it so good – as long as you aren’t at sea

To judge by many of the presentations at the Global VSAT Forum event in London last week, the shipping industry has never had it so good – in terms of communications at least. Prices are falling, choice is broadening and access to social media is growing, overturning decades in which patchy and expensive communications were the norm.

Not so fast, says Mark Woodhead, managing director of Headland Media. We may be living in a golden age of communications on land but it’s not the same at sea. As a demonstration, he got the audience to acknowledge who had made a call, checked, email, surfed the web or used social media in the course of the first conference session.

By contrast, most seafarers he said are ‘living in the late 1990s’ in terms of communications infrastructure and the fact that we take our connectivity for granted should not stop us forgetting that few seafarers enjoy anything like this level of connectedness. Given the importance that the IMO for one places on the ‘human element’ in shipping, this is something we should be concerned about.

“The first thing I did when planning this speech was to turn off all my gadgets and work out what I was going to say. That is the life that many seafarers have today,” he said. Headland has a daily relationship with 9,000 vessels and 200,000 seafarers, distributing news and entertainment as well as training and safety films.

Woodhead turned his connections back on to email questions on the opportunities that technology and connectivity presented to Headland Media’s clients and got 100 replies,  some running to multiple pages. As this was not a formal process, he backed it up with the ITF’s 2010 seafarer survey, but the results were closely aligned.

“From what I got, I conclude that between 10 and 50% of seafarers have access to email onboard ship. Hardly any have private email accounts, they are usually fixed to the ship and accessed by master. Hardly any have access to attachments,” he said.

Where email is provided, messages are often restricted to 3,000 characters. Some are charged for sending and receiving emails and these are almost always batched, meaning they go off the ship in a pre-determined time window rather than real-time.

“If that was how we were getting our email on land, we’d have a different attitude and we’d use it in a very different way,” he observed wryly. If he was surprised by that response, there was worse to come. “For internet access, by which I mean the ability to surf the web, the ITF found that almost 20% had access. From the information we got, it is less than 10%. Some have access in port but most are going to seamen’s mission or internet cafés.”

One anecdote he harvested was of a seafarer who got off a vessel and sat on the pavement for three hours to get into an internet café. The harbour side bars opposite were mostly empty while people queued up for web access.

“All this makes you realise this isn’t just something seafarers want, it’s beginning to be fundamental. Even though merchant shipping is going through hard times, retention and recruitment are still very difficult. Most of the people in that 10% with web access told me they would never sign contract for a ship which didn’t have internet access. Three or four were happy to sign a nine month contract on ships with internet access rather than six months on ships that didn’t,” he added.

The killer app here is Skype, the modern-day phone call and text machine in one – most seafarers never used its video calling functionality. Seafarers also want to be able to use email afloat as they do ashore – in private with attachments. They also want to be entertained, with social media, instant messaging, video, film and news from home.

But as Woodhead pointed out, his respondents were equally as interested in what they could use this connectivity for professionally as personally.

“They want chart updates, information on piracy, safety and security information, updates on regulations, trends in shipping. More and more of them realise that regulations are increasingly important and serious for them. They also want to use connections to research answers to problems onboard. They would rather search forums or the web than phone the office,” he added.

There are a handful of intriguing statements to unpack there, but the main takeaway is that better connectivity might help to save time (and therefore money) and improve performance and safety and boost quality of life. That’s a good deal for a few megabytes of data per month.

What is stopping greater connectivity can basically be defined as cost and control. Neither should stand in the way of better availability of services to crew, Woodhead reckoned. The competitive nature of market is driving down costs and control, either through bandwidth management to separate business from leisure traffic, or means to control virus and unauthorised access risk, is commonly available.

“Modern routers and software can easily sort the bandwidth problem out. It’s also easy to establish a walled garden that pushes users to approved sites. We act as ISP for 600 vessels providing spam filtering and anti-virus and we have not had a problem. Probably a bigger issue for the content owners at least, is copyright.”

As Woodhead sees it, if there is a responsibility to control the technology, there is a greater responsibility to provide the access. To a shipping company it can make a difference to whether or not they attract and retain the seafarers they need. Access to communications also forms part of the guidelines to the Maritime Labour Convention. Responsible managers will want to be seen as compliant and in any case the direction of travel is set.

“We are at a tipping point, the first time where cost, regulations infrastructure and seafarer demand are all pulling the same direction. It’s time we trust the crew to use these services responsibly. Welfare is a key element but better connectivity offers significant entertainment and professional opportunities too.”