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Maritime Digital Transformation Series: The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things

The cloud, mobility, blockchain, big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence – all modern technologies that are destined to transform the marine transportation industry. The technology that could have the most profound effect, however, is the Internet of Things (IoT).

IoT Background

The internet was originally envisioned for use by people – through the use of computers and devices – to connect to other devices with resources on them, such as documents or videos – or to each other, such as in a chat room or a virtual meeting. The term “Internet of Things” refers to the concept that now “things,” as well as people, are also participants. That enhanced vision has magnified the value of the internet in astronomical and still unimagined ways.

The reality of IoT has rapidly become a part of our everyday lives. A refrigerator sends a text message when it’s time to change the water filter, a smoke detector automatically calls the fire department when it detects smoke, and we can easily track the location of the family pet using a relatively inexpensive collar and a cell phone. Even services like Uber or the popular Waze app are tangible forms of IoT. Refrigerators, smoke detectors, animals, cars, drivers, and passengers are all things, on the internet and used in innovative ways that continue to improve our lives. 

Maritime IoT

Though only recently branded as IoT, the value that the concept can deliver to the marine transportation industry has been envisioned for many years. Early adopters include engine manufacturers that send themselves engine diagnostic data for maintenance and trending purposes. Some operators, typically larger companies with more budget, have also implemented IoT solutions to automate things like conditional or planned maintenance.

There is also no shortage of visionary use cases. Class societies are looking to use IoT to enhance their services. Instead of being limited to annual inspections, 24-7 monitoring using onboard sensors can augment the service. Autonomous ships are now more feasible using IoT technologies, and real-time predictions as to an engine failure enhance the value of an alarm panel only.

Challenges to Adoption

Unlike other modes of transportation, marine transportation has unique challenges. These complexities are the primary reason the industry has been an IoT laggard.

The first challenge involves the cost associated with providing a meaningful data pipe to a vessel. Brown water operators often utilize cellular technologies, offering a fixed price for limited bandwidth. Blue water operators typically use a satellite-based system, with higher costs for even less bandwidth. In both situations, the data pipe provided is relatively small and too expensive for many IoT scenarios. 

Another challenge involves the sheer volume of data that vessel-based sensors can generate. These sensors can number in the hundreds, or even thousands, and can generate readings every second for things like temperature, pressure, runtime hours, vibrations, flow, consumption, and more.

When you combine the problem of expensive, low-bandwidth data pipes with the need to work with large volumes of data, it’s easy to see why many operators have not progressed much with IoT.

A confluence of recent technology advancements, however, have opened a world of exciting possibilities for the industry that are value-rich, reliable and affordable.

Maritime IoT Challenges are Being Solved

Vessel communication offerings are coming down in price, provide more bandwidth, and are increasingly more reliable. Companies like Inmarsat, OrbComm, Iridium and Thuraya offer a variety of data packages for blue water operators, each optimized for security, affordability, packet size, or reliability. Terrestrial providers now offer brown water operators high-capacity data packages at affordable, fixed prices.

Companies like Microsoft are also starting to solve the problem of working with the vast amounts of onboard data over low-bandwidth connections, with products like Azure, IoT Edge and IoT Hub.

Consider the smoke detector IoT solution. The device has the luxury of connecting to the existing wireless router in your home. It produces a tiny amount of data and can simply remit that data to the cloud for processing without the need for expensive electronics, steady power, internal storage, or computational resources.

In contrast, a vessel IoT process needs to take more of an “edge”, “fog”, or “hybrid” approach. In this model, solutions take advantage of compute resources both onboard and in the cloud. Onboard computers can crunch, compress, encrypt, reduce, and make predictions against the data locally, and then remit smaller-sized, aggregated data results to the cloud for additional analysis, LTD storage, and processing.

What Can IoT Do for Your Marine Transportation Company

The potential benefits IoT can bring are staggering. A good IoT solution will use more than just your vessel sensor data, but other forms of information as well, such as weather predictions, sea conditions, employee training records, maintenance history, billing information, crew social media monitoring, and historical route data. When this information is combined into a single data repository, and machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are applied to it, benefits can include:
• Route estimation and optimization
• Job logistics and automation
• Legal defense and liability protection
• Automated conditional maintenance
• Predictive maintenance and failures
• Remote control and vessel autonomy
• Revenue and predictions
• Expense optimization
• Global trend analysis and predictions
• Price optimization through automated competitive analysis
• Safety improvements and recommendations
• Captain and crew automated skill evaluations and real-time monitoring
• Compliance management

Getting Started

As IoT begins to make its impact on the maritime industry, operators are encouraged to investigate the benefits it can deliver to their company. While many consider IoT solutions a luxury today, they will inevitably provide considerable competitive advantages in the very near future. Those luxuries will soon become must-haves to remain competitive, and will also be equalizers between the majors and smaller operators.

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