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Maritime communications on brink of transformation

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By Dave George

Traditional marine radio communications have always been uniquely different from land mobile radio. Smaller vessels from 80 to 180 feet typically used VHF handhelds for internal and external communications.

Now, some VHF two-way radios include both marine and land mobile frequencies with programmable channels for navigation and communications. Vessels over 180 feet required the more powerful UHF signal to transmit effectively through bulkheads, floors and hulls. Newer programmable portable radios came along, which allowed captains and crew to departmentalize channels by area, or to create interior channels for crew-to-crew communications. 

Today, because of significant advancements in digital technologies, maritime communications are on the brink of an industrywide transformation.

Wireless evolution continues

Though hard-wired communications are still most common, wireless has begun to proliferate throughout the maritime community, as evidenced by the increasing use of non-marine digital radios and push-to-talk accessories. To Illustrate, an increasing number of boats are using the ICOM F62 analog/digital VHF/UHF portable with built-in Bluetooth, even though it isn’t technically a marine radio. Trends also indicate growing use of Push-to-Talk (PTT) wireless accessories that pair with internal radio Bluetooth, such as the Pryme BTH-300 headset or BTH-600 wireless speaker microphone.

Still, transitioning to new technologies is difficult, particularly in more conservative industries like maritime. A large contingent of two-way radio users aren’t quite ready to make the jump to wireless, yet are intrigued by its potential. What most don’t realize is that a simple hybrid solution exists: Bluetooth adapters for radios. These adapters easily convert two-way radios to Bluetooth by adding a wireless headset or microphone. One example is the Pryme BT-520 Bluetooth Adapter, which many captains and crew use to communicate wirelessly with the ICOM M85 Marine Radio, but there are similar versions available for other radio models as well.

Digital transformation grows

Despite reticence toward wireless adoption, emerging marine-specific software applications are helping spur the digital transformation. Team communications apps like Slack and Zello are just two of many on the market today. With the advent of Push-to-Talk over Cellular (PoC), captains and crew can now tap powerful networks using walkie-talkie apps that live on smartphones or other mobile devices, and leverage specialized PTT wireless accessories to access them hands-free. 

The key to the success of the digital transformation is connectivity. Unlike the fast and reliable wireless data services on land, maritime has inherent limitations, including low throughput of legacy analog VHF radio systems, regulatory compliance concerns, and the IMO’s 2021 cyber security mandates. Implementing new network-centric communications systems also faces challenges posed by lack of infrastructure, interoperability, spectrum, interference and the diverse ocean environment. 

The need for more robust communications technologies is also being driven by the big data requirements of “smart ships,” such as crewless boats, remote-controlled tugs, and oceanographic exploration, research and training vessels. In recent years, technologies that connect ships to shore to convey real-time data have advanced significantly. Next generation solutions are being developed to handle large volumes of information for intelligence gathering, live video streaming, etc., as well as the internet-of-things (IoT) to support sensors for real-time cargo tracking, predictive maintenance, routing optimization, vessel performance, digital fleet management and the like. 

The escalating demand for maritime digital services has prompted many industry collaborations to improve connectivity, deliver high-speed data rates and extended coverage. Wireless service providers are expanding infrastructure for cellular, voice, data, text, Wi-Fi and IoT at sea. Recently deployed commercial maritime broadband services, along with existing equipment upgrades, are providing voice services and internet connectivity for IoT, crew welfare, and critical communications. Maritime wireless mesh networks (MWMNs) are also on the near horizon, while artificial intelligence (AI)-based predictive positioning system trials have demonstrated excellent potential for vastly improved situational awareness. 

In the interim, while the maritime world “turns the tide” toward digital, an integrated mix of communications technologies will continue to coexist. For instance, the Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP) owned by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) uses a combination of high frequency (HF), VHF, INMARSAT and cellular equipment to support its complex communications needs.

A case can be made for both analog and digital communications in the maritime environment. However, more and more benefits of mobile wireless are surfacing daily, from immediate access to information and more efficient operations, to better vessel performance, cost savings and higher levels of safety. Transformative mobility technologies present captains and crew with a world of new opportunities.

Dave George is chief technologist and president of Pryme Radio. An RF engineer for more than 40 years, he holds 29 patents and coaches a Southern California high school robotics team. Comments on this essay are welcome below.

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