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Digitalisation and ship connectivity versus the cyber threats

December 18th 2017
By Martyn Wingrove

It has been an extraordinary year for innovation in maritime with satellite communications records broken, shipowners adopting digitalisation strategies and demonstrations of remote control of surface vessels.

But, 2017 has also been the year when shipping was forced to recognise and react to the rising tide of cyber threats while tackling issues with meeting new standards for navigation systems and ship emissions.

Here I review the five most important trends to affect the marine electronics, communications and IT world in 2017. It has been an exciting ride that will continue to develop in 2018.

Shipping digitalisation

The watchword for 2017 has to be ‘digitalisation’. Shipping companies, charterers and equipment manufacturers are all striving to become the first to adopt digitalisation. This requires advanced IT and communications infrastructure and ship systems, updated software, ship-to-shore connectivity and in many cases cloud applications and new methods of online working. The benefits are numerous for shipping and some feel that it will revolutionise ship operations and chartering.

Oil major Shell explained how its shipping division has benefited from digitalisation in the fourth quarter issue of Marine Electronics & Communications. General manager for shipping and maritime Carl Henrickson said Shell has more than 500 data points on its ships that provide information to ports and terminals that enables Shell to optimise its operations.

Shell has also invested in data analytics and automated processes. This is an example of what can be achieved with digitalisation. Regular readers of marinemec.com and Marine Electronics & Communications will recognise that other shipping companies, such as Van Oord, have also opened up about the benefits they can achieve through digitalisation.

Smart ships/intelligent fleets

Ship operators can, and have, gone further using data analytics to consider smart ships and intelligent fleets. In 2017, we witnessed ship system providers opening intelligent shipping and asset management centresand adopting smart shipping strategies.

For example, Rolls-Royce opened a demonstrator in Ålesund, Norway; in November, Wärtsilä Marine Solutions unveiled its Smart Marine Ecosystem vision that it expects will revolutionise shipping; and ABB introduced its Ability Marine Pilot Vision.

Data from ships will be analysed at specially designed onshore centres that will turn this into valuable information for owners and manufacturers. This could be used to improve ship system efficiency, optimise voyages, reduce fuel consumption and enable condition-based maintenance of machinery. All this is allowing contractors to make intelligent asset management a reality.

Remote control

All this leads ultimately to more remote control of offshore or onboard operations. Connectivity levels have improved to a point that enables operators in one country to control a vessel in another. This was demonstrated by Wärtsilä Marine Solutions in 2017. A dynamic positioning specialist was able to control movements of platform supply vessel Highland Chieftain in the North Sea using satellite connectivity.

Although the distance was not the same, Rolls-Royce technology was used by Svitzer to control a tug in Denmark from a remote operating centre in Copenhagen, Denmark. Distance is not the issue here, which means future vessel masters do not need to be on the ships to control them. They will of course need situational awareness technology. This subject will be elaborated in the first issue of Marine Electronics & Communications of 2018.

Cyber attacks and security

Shipowners can benefit from all the positives with VSAT connectivity, smart ships and intelligent operations and remote control, but they must ensure these links are secure. Cyber attacks came to the fore in shipping circles when one of the bastions of the industry, Maersk Group, was attacked to the point of having to go back to pen and paper to conduct daily business.

Up to that point, on 20 June, the shipping industry as a whole was brushing cyber issues under the carpet. This is despite Marine Electronics & Communications creating a conduit to educate the sector on this important threat.

Our annual European Marine Cyber Risk Management Summit in London, held in June, was well attended and supported. I feel that if we held it in July it would have been even better for being after the Maersk cyber attack. But, the summit was held after IMO’s announcement in May that the governing organisation would enforce the need for shipowners and managers to include cyber security in safety management documentation.

When Maersk was attacked, its ship-to-shore communications was transferred to the almost unhackable Inmarsat C safety network, while its daily business was conducted with pen and paper. Maersk estimated that it cost the group around US$200M and it had to invest further in security measures.

Since then, other ship operators, such as BW Group and BP Shipping, have admitted that they are constantly under pressure from cyber attacks. In the case of BW Group, someone got through. This demonstrates that the shipping industry is a constant target and needs protection, threat mitigation and response services.

ECDIS standards

However, not all shipping is so well connected. Far more ships have navigation technology on board than those that have advanced satellite communications and remote monitoring. Which is why there was plenty of interest in our articles on the impact of changes to the standards for bridge equipment, most notably ECDIS.

Our most popular online article covered the changes made this year to ECDIS standards by the International Hydrographic Organisation and their enforcement by IMO. Shipping companies have been tackling the issue, but it was anticipated that many would be unprepared for the changes in standards.

There was the threat that ships could be detained by port state control for not having undated ECDIS and electronic navigational charts. Our infographics in the Q4 2017 issue indicated that this was a substantial threat. However, by the end of this year, there have been few examples and little data to suggest this became a reality. It is a subject we will revisit in 2018 as we plan for our Complete Guide to ECDIS supplement.

It has been an exciting year of technical advances, digital thoughts, smarter ship operations and remote control demonstrations. But, 2017 will be known as the year when shipping was shocked into having to recognise the cyber security threats. Certainly these will only increase in 2018 and so will the technical innovations.