Comms from ship to shore
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason explores how cutting-edge technology is being used to overcome the obstacles to digital communication inherent in a shipping and container port environment

Ports and shipping is a unique sector, both in terms of the logistics involved in successfully doing business, and in turn what operators within it require from their digital communications.

In the first instance, the sheer scale of the work is extraordinary, with the biggest container ports having to deal with hundreds of tonnes of freight on a daily basis. One example of this is Shanghai, the biggest port in the world, which as of 2015 – according to the American Association of Port Authorities – stored and shifted more than 36 million containers in the course of a single year.

The containers present their own logistical challenges. Up to 56 feet long and invariably constructed from steel, these items are unloaded from ship to shore via the use of massive container cranes. They are subsequently stacked using equally behemoth-like straddle-carriers, which are essentially mobile cranes tall enough to carry multiple containers at a time, one on top of the other.

As might be imagined, all this creates a novel landscape in terms of comms. Just how does one keep track of the movements of often extraordinarily valuable cargo across such a potentially vast and complicated arena as a container port? More to the point, with enormous metal objects creating a natural barrier to radio waves, how do operators solve the problem of interference (an issue that also occurs, albeit on an often smaller scale, in the warehousing sector)?

Business bedrock
There are many Wi-Fi and LTE-facilitated comms solutions currently available to ports operations to help them increase efficiency, and therefore turnover. The go-to technology, however, when it comes to voice comms – which is still the bedrock of most businesses wanting their people to communicate instantaneously on-site – is two-way radio.

One manufacturer well-versed in providing digital radio technology to ports is Kenwood, which has recently seen its NEXEDGE system installed at Vietnam’s first deep-sea container terminal, SP-PSA International Port south of Ho Chi Minh City.

The site, which is in the process of being expanded to four container berths, took possession of 111 of the company’s NX300 radios, configured for 15 talk groups. Kenwood also supplied four antennas, as well as rack-mounted repeaters, duplexers, and a VPN router to cover the whole site.

Speaking about the installation, a spokesperson for the company says: “PS-PSA is a large facility, with staff spread out but still needing to speak to one another on the ground. Stacks of containers were causing problems with signal propagation, which was one of the things which we needed to address.

“Once installed, a coverage test was performed and the results were more than satisfactory. The radios were able to communicate directly at distances of up to three kilometres – and up to five kilometres with 5W trunking.”

Significant radio mast
As discussed, two-way radio is often the tool of choice when it comes to companies wanting their people at the coalface to talk to each other. At the same time, however, organisations are also incorporating a wide variety of data solutions into their operations. These include systems using GPS tracking (such as International Terminal Solutions’ G-POS product), as well as the integration of mobile data terminals alongside two-way handsets.

Based in Malvern, Pennsylvania, Rajant provides a system – its Kinetic Mesh network product – specifically designed to provide what the company describes as a “fail-proof” broadband system in the challenging environments described above. Developed following the events of 9/11, it works via the distribution of linked multi-frequency small cells (‘breadcrumbs’) across a site, instantaneously and autonomously re-routing data via the best available traffic path/frequency. Speaking of the different data solutions now being used by the shipping industry, Rajant’s director of sales Chris Mason says: “Every modern container port in the world is organised by some form of port operation software, interfacing with the operator’s ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems.

“This directs things like the quay cranes, which need to know which containers to take off in which order, as well as the saddle carriers which need to go where the container is being offloaded, so they can take it to its final destination. Those vehicles operate on a 24/7 basis, so pertinent information yielded from the telemetry also has to be communicated back to control, for instance regarding maintenance issues and driver alertness.”

He continues: “In terms of digital communications, there are two primary obstacles to overcome when it comes to ports. The first is that, by their nature, things are being moved around the port all the time, coupled with the fact that the objects involved in the operating of a container port already provide literal, massive barriers to signals.

“The other thing which can be difficult is the vast amount of RF noise produced externally, by sources which are in close proximity. For instance, this could be from the ships themselves, which have their own transmission systems. It could also come from adjoining enterprises – for instance, another port – which will all be transmitting with their own radio. It really is quite a difficult environment for a single frequency to operate in.”

According to Mason, the Rajant system actually takes advantage of these conditions, with the cells being deployable on port infrastructure such as light poles. The massive straddle carriers mentioned above are also a benefit in this regard, meanwhile, with their sheer height allowing them to tower over even the highest stack of containers.

Resiliency is built in through the the nodes themselves, which act simultaneously as both radio and processor. “If you add more nodes, the network improves,” says Mason, “because you’ve got more choices about the routes you have. Each node acts as a switch, a router and, if necessary, a gateway.”

Ways to remain sane
Providing an effective communications effort for use by container port personnel is clearly no straightforward task. Just as challenging, however, is the business of keeping those aboard ship connected with dry land, something which – when the ship is out at sea – has to take place via satellite.

Stuart Castell is director of broadband services for AST, the satellite communications company whose recently developed INTEGRA solution range is designed to help monitor the use of data by those working on the high seas. According to him, this use is something that has traditionally proven quite costly for ship owners, with – quite understandably – those on board often using comms not just to carry out their work, but also to ease the sense of isolation while away.

Speaking of the challenges presented by satellite-enabled internet access, Castell says: “The biggest issue we’re seeing in the maritime space at the moment is the need to monitor and manage communications devices being used onboard ship. The bandwidth in those spaces is tiny – less than a single meg – and sometimes shared by something like 30 or 40 users.

“While those onboard are obviously also doing the work they’re meant to be, they’re no different from anyone else in that they want to use Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and so on. Recently, we saw an example of a user who ran up a bill in the region of $10,000 – $5,000 of which was on a game, which obviously is something which can’t be allowed to happen.”

With that in mind, the INTEGRA system, which sits on ASP’s pre-existing IP VPN network, is designed to help manage data usage while providing a faster service than a traditional VSAT satellite connection, for which users would pay a fixed price for a pre-arranged amount of data.

The first part of the system – INTEGRA Control – allows shipping operators to identify how data is flowing on an application-by application-basis, and cap it (or throttle the bandwidth) according to how it is being used in real time. INTEGRA Edge, meanwhile, is an on-board interface that works parallel to Control, producing what AST calls a least-cost routing system by prioritising different types of data access according to where the ship is at any given moment (for instance, if it is at anchor and able to use its shore Wi-Fi).

“The thing that’s important about this,” says Castell, “is that it’s extremely simple for owners to use, working as it does via an internet connection accessible from anywhere. Previously you’d have to be fairly skilled in terms of IT to monitor data usage in this format – plus every ship in the fleet would have to carry a large router to give an accurate picture of what was happening across the fleet.”

He continues: “There are some real, business-critical, data-dependent operational priorities that need to get off the vessel, such as e-logs of fishing data and weather information. It’s imperative that this usage can always be maintained.”

The shipping industry is one of the central planks of the supply chain, helping to maintain the global economy. Digital comms is playing its part in keeping the industry operating successfully – minimising costs, and making day-to-day operations easier.

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Kenwood Electronics UK Ltd

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