First port of call
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason looks at how the inventive use of digital communications technology is helping to solve age-old problems within the port and maritime environment

Ports are some of the most demanding environments to kit out when it comes to digital communications.

There are a variety of reasons for this, not least that the terrain in which communication takes place is filled with natural barriers to the transmission of radio waves (in the shape of cranes, enormous metal containers, as well as the vessels themselves). The potential RF noise produced by other radio sources in close proximity – for instance, other ports – also provides a considerable challenge for single-frequency communications.

The converse of this is that ports, and the maritime environment as a whole, provide the opportunity for operators to demonstrate an increased level of invention, particularly when it comes to putting recent innovations to use.

This is something we touched on in Land Mobile’s last ports piece, with a discussion of Rajant’s Kinetic Mesh networking product. This issue, we’re turning our attention to the use of drones to carry out safety inspections of difficult-to-access areas, both onsite and inside vessels themselves.

Dutch heavy load carrier
Robotica in Maintenance Strategies (RIMS) is a Dutch company specialising in the use of ‘robotic’ technology in a port environment. Operating initially in facilities close to home such as the Port of Amsterdam, it has recently been awarded ‘recognised external specialist’ status for the use of remote inspection techniques by both the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) and RINA (Registro Italiano Navale).

Speaking of the scope of the activities carried out by RIMS, CEO David Knukkel says: “We work for a variety of organisations, such as ship owners, and classification and inspection companies for storage tanks onshore, which are involved in drawing up technical standards for shipping, and oil and gas.

“Our work essentially involves the use of drones to survey smaller or hard-to-reach spaces, work which previously involved an immense amount of organisation and cost. We’re looking in particular for structural damage – for instance, cracks or bending – as well as the condition of paintwork. It’s a general visual inspection, necessary to keep these vessels up
and running.”

According to Knukkel, the first inspection carried out by the company was in 2015 on a Dutch heavy load carrier, the Rolldock Sky, which at the time was docked at Rotterdam. This involved sending the solution – a single drone, encased in a durable carbon fibre frame – into two ballast tanks to have a good root around.

As he points out, this provided a more-than-acceptable quality of image capture from the device’s onboard HD and thermal cameras, transmitted back to a central control point in real time via 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. The images were stored for subsequent analysis using an embedded SD card, the contents of which were securely uploaded to a laptop once the flight reached its conclusion.

The use of the drone also circumvented the need for any of the usual measures required when sending human beings into what can often be an extremely hazardous environment. No equipment inspections or safety plans were necessary, and no ventilation since nothing in the inspection area was breathing.

The Flyability SA Elios drone has been used in a variety of sectors, from shipping to oil and gas

Going into more detail about the solution itself, Knukkel said that the drone used for the inspections is the Elios. It is manufactured by Swiss company Flyability SA, which specialises in collision-tolerant devices for use in a variety of different sectors.

According to him, the product has a maximum line-of-sight distance of around 500 metres. There are also no issues regarding use inside ‘metallic’ environments, because the material itself helps to propagate the Wi-Fi, the signal for which originates from an antenna placed at the entrance of the inspection area.

While clearly an effective solution, according to Knukkel there are still several issues to iron out before UAVs are able to reach their full potential in an inspection environment.

The first of these is the current inability to operate within ATEX (explosive) zones. Current regulations also make it difficult for inspections to take place in the open air, especially in locations that could be regarded as part of the critical national infrastructure.

There are also advances Knukkel would like to see made to the technology itself, specifically in the realm of analysing the data once it has been collected.

“There are a variety of improvements which would make things even better,” says Knukkel. “For instance, we’d like to see further development when it comes to AI and image recognition, meaning that the operator won’t be required to view all of the footage.

“We also want to enable the drones to fly autonomously, making the inspection the focus rather than the flight. The technology already exists, but we want to integrate specific features, such as being able to pre-programme the route. We’ve found partners in this field, and we’re looking for investment to make the next step.”

International protocols
As discussed, ports are among the most challenging environments when it comes to the deployment of communications solutions. The situation is also complex for those operating away from dry land, with the sea offering its own set of logistic considerations, as well as a variety of requirements in the realm of legislation and international standards.

Radio manufacturer Icom’s marketing manager Ian Lockyer gives an overview of the communications landscape for those wishing to put to sea, beginning with analogue VHF handheld devices. The provision of these – for instance, in the shape of its IC-M range – is core to the company’s work within the maritime sector.

“Marine VHF radios are used for a variety of purposes, many of which involve communication with the shore,” says Lockyer. “That could include contacting harbours, marinas and locks, or summoning the rescue services. It’s also used for ship-to-ship communication.

“There are a wide range of international marine channels, as well as a number of private ones, allocated on a local basis to commercial organisations. Channel 16 – 156.800MHz – is the international calling and distress channel.

“The VHF marine radio band has to be consistent around the world, ensuring that vessels travelling on international voyages can always communicate. The maximum range of marine VHF is about 60 nautical miles.”

As well as VHF, longer-distance communications can also be achieved through the use of MF/HF/SSB (single sideband), which can work across thousands of miles. UHF is also occasionally used specifically for onboard communications, alongside IP-based solutions thanks to the ever-improving provision of broadband via VSAT technology.

Going back to the subject of VHF, according to Lockyer, the technology has developed considerably over the past decade thanks in part to the trust demonstrated by the market in it as a “tried and tested solution”. Its use has also coincided with the advent of DSC (digital selective calling) and AIS (automatic identification system), two text/graphics-based systems used to facilitate onboard safety.

Speaking of the latter solutions and their adoption by the international shipping community, Lockyer says: “Under Global Maritime Distress and Safety System [GMDSS] regulations, all fixed-mount marine VHF radios must now have DSC capability. This allows users to alert other boats, ships and shore stations with the single press of a button.

“Other capabilities include position polling, as well as several group calling options. DSC also gives the ability to connect to a remote microphone, thereby acting as an inter-ship intercom system.”

He continues: “Regarding AIS, it enables users to see every ship fitted with an automatic identification system transceiver within a particular range, while also showing the vessel’s speed and heading. This essentially offers an overview of every large and potentially hazardous craft in the area, identified according to classification,
call sign, registration number and so on.

“The use of these technologies together means that if you need to call a ship in your vicinity – for example, if a large bulk carrier is bearing down on you – you can contact it over VHF by name. Knowing its MMSI [maritime mobile service identity] number, you can call it directly using DSC.”

There are also specific requirements when it comes to handsets and their build. In the first instance, this means simply being able to withstand what Lockyer calls “the demands of the environment”. This includes protection against the water, as well as the possibility of being dropped or knocked about in stormy conditions. Particularly loud environments may require the use of active noise-cancelling technology, which digitally removes background noise while simultaneously improving the incoming signal.

At the same time, particular environments – for instance, oil rigs or oil tankers – also require onboard radios to meet international professional safety standards. These include those laid out in the European ATEX directives mentioned above, as well as any updated SOLAS regulations (such as those issued in 2014, relating to radios carried onboard
by firefighters).

Summing up the maritime sector, and what operators require from their onboard radios, Lockyer says: “The market by its very nature is incredibly diverse, consisting of users from many different sectors spread out across the world. Ultimately, though, it’s driven by the needs of those users as well as their protection while at sea.

“Icom has been manufacturing both two-way radio and marine radio equipment for decades, which is why we understand the demands of the sector so well. Our brand – pardon the pun – is usually the first port of call.”

The successful operation of the shipping sector is integral to the global economy. Whether digital or analogue, voice or data, communications technology is playing its part in keeping the whole thing afloat.

Icom and VHF
A core area of radio manufacturer Icom’s work in the marine sector is in the production of handheld and mounted VHF devices.

As well as enabling voice communication, these products also contain a variety of specialised features, many of which help illustrate the particular requirements of those who make their living from being out at sea.

These include integrated AIS (automatic identification system) receivers, as well as active noise cancelling. NMEA 2000 connectivity allows for AIS information to be overlaid onto a vessel’s chart plotter.

The ‘foghorn’ function included on certain models, meanwhile, is usable via an external hailer horn.

A core area of radio manufacturer Icom’s work in the marine sector is in the production of handheld and mounted VHF devices.

As well as enabling voice communication, these products also contain a variety of specialised features, many of which help illustrate the particular requirements of those who make their living from being out at sea.

These include integrated AIS (automatic identification system) receivers, as well as active noise cancelling. NMEA 2000 connectivity allows for AIS information to be overlaid onto a vessel’s chart plotter.

The ‘foghorn’ function included on certain models, meanwhile, is usable via an external hailer horn.




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