Topaz and Bourbon are seeing the benefits of VSAT across their fleets, while technology providers are preparing for offshore developments using high-throughput satellites
Offshore support vessel owners are enhancing operations and fleet management through advanced satellite communications, using very small aperture terminal (VSAT) technology. The majority of OSVs use older forms of this technology, deployed when market rates were high, before 2015.
Since then, there have been few new VSAT contracts or upgrades. However, those that have upgraded have seen the benefits. Topaz Energy and Marine chief executive René Kofod-Olsen told OSJ about the operational benefits of using VSAT and providing vessel masters with tablets.
He said crews use vessel wifi and Orange Business Services’ Maritime Connect digital platform to communicate with shore staff. The fleet uses Ku-band when available and L-band as a back-up. Crew can also use coastal cellular networks as lower-cost routes for data and voice services.
“Our investment in IT demonstrates how we embrace technology advances,” he said. “We are able to synchronise and manage our integrated business operations more effectively and ensure our crew can access the internet for all their business communications needs.”
Bourbon is another company using VSAT connectivity to improve operations. Bourbon vice president of operation standards and innovation Frederic Moulin said upgrades to VSAT will enable the company to better monitor vessel operations, including dynamic positioning.
VSAT bandwidth enables Bourbon to “draw on data for remote monitoring and analysis” said Mr Moulin. Because VSAT speeds are around 512 kbps on its vessels, Bourbon sends data in packages, which means it is not real time. However, VSAT also enables Bourbon to remotely update onboard software.
“We can access the equipment and software and remotely monitor networks,” Mr Moulin said. This is managed by Inmarsat’s Ku-band and L-band connectivity. Bourbon vessels could also be updated to Inmarsat’s Fleet Xpress Ka-band services in the future. This is one potential avenue of VSAT upgrade, but there are others that use Ku-band and C-band and the new generation of high-throughput satellites (HTSs).
Antenna hardware is being adapted to reflect both the new demands of offshore vessel owners and developments in satellite technology. As more geostationary and medium-Earth orbit HTS are launched and commissioned, more data bandwidth is available in C-, Ku- and Ka-bands for owners and managers.
When all three of these bands of radio frequency are available for communications and data transmissions, some types of offshore vessels will need antenna hardware to use them. These vessels include seismic survey ships, offshore construction vessels, floating production units, well intervention vessels, drillships and pipelayers.
With this in mind, Cobham Satcom and Intellian Technologies developed tri-band VSAT antenna technology for offshore vessels and rigs. These enable vessels to communicate using both K-bands and the global coverage from C-band without crew intervention.
Intellian started manufacturing its 2.4 m v240MT antenna for cruise ships in 2017; it is frequency-agnostic and satellite orbit-agnostic. This means it connects with C-band and Ku-band services from geostationary satellites and Ka-band from SES’ O3b medium-Earth orbit constellation. Intellian also developed an intelligent mediator that ensures the antenna can automatically switch between bands and satellite orbits without the need for crew to touch the antenna.
Cobham Satcom worked with satellite owner Viasat to develop its Sea Tel 9711 Triband maritime antenna. This is a 2.4 m unit that performs across any C-, Ku-, or Ka-band network. Its architecture is based on Cobham’s existing Sea Tel 9711 C/Ku integrated maritime dual-band antenna model, of which there are around 1,000 units in operation, but with added Ka-band capability.
Cobham vice president for maritime business Christian Kock said the tri-band model delivers the same automatic switching and radio performance as the dual-band version. It will enable broadband transmission speeds up to 1 Gbps. Mr Kock described the tri-band antenna as “a leap forward in terms of bandwidth potential” which will empower Cobham’s partners, the VSAT service providers, to “craft unconventional service packages using multiple frequencies, multiple networks and multiple orbits.”
C-band and Ku-band services can be delivered from any of the main satellite owners, such as SES, Intelsat, Eutelsat, Skyperfect JSAT, Telesat, Yahsat, Singtel and Thaicom. In this case, Viasat provides the Ka-band radio frequency unit on the antenna for Ka-band services, such as its own and that of Telenor and O3b.
Sea Tel 9711 Triband offers seamless, automated electronic switching between bands, providing operational continuity for vessels with demanding bandwidth, reliability and coverage requirements, said Mr Kock. “This system is a core building block for what will be the next generation of connectivity at sea.”
Another technology that is often overlooked in offshore vessel VSAT is the ability to control the antenna using software. Cobham Satcom global VSAT business manager Jens Ewerling explained to OSJ how software and automatic services improve satellite performance and maximise power.
“Our automatic calibration capability ensures that the transmitting power level is always at a maximum across the full spectrum of radio frequencies,” he said. Power levels are controlled dynamically by the VSAT modem in real time.
“This is based on the system’s software-controlled architecture, which allows the antenna to always perform at peak power, rather than it operating on the middle-of-the-road setting that could be chosen during calibration,” said Mr Ewerling.
When antennas operate at maximum power, end-users can experience faster and more reliable internet compared with the same reflector-dish size on a non-software-controlled antenna. More end-users can use the bandwidth and satellite capacity, which reduces the need for upgrades when oil company clients also need the online connectivity.
For offshore support vessels that do not have the space for tri-band or dual-band antennas, there could be an alternative to existing 60 cm or 1 m diameter VSAT in the shape of flat panel antenna technology.
Phasor is testing its electronically-steered antenna (ESA) on vessels in maritime conditions this year, said chief executive Dave Helfgott. “Our mission is to empower mobile broadband access across all commercial-use cases and markets,” Mr Helfgott told OSJ.
The development of flat panel antennas is being driven in part by the expectation that new constellations of non-geostationary high-bandwidth satellites will be launched by companies such as OneWeb, LeoSat and Telesat. These will enable ESAs to continue satellite links for broadband connectivity across oceans.
Mr Helfgott said mobile broadband connectivity “is poised to take off as a second wave of wideband non-geostationary satellite constellations come online.” These will improve latency [delay in voice due to distances between Earth and satellites], global coverage and the user-economics of mobile connectivity, he said.
Phasor ESAs will be able to communicate with any kind of satellite system, whether it is geostationary, medium-Earth orbit or low-Earth orbit. “They will be interoperable from a single aperture,” explained Mr Helfgott. “This is currently impossible with mechanically-steered satellite communications antennas” unless they have multi-band capabilities with two radio frequency feeds or apertures.
The launch of new HTS, coupled with improvements in antenna performance, are driving gains in modem technology, which has lagged other sectors for the last five years. IT platform providers are now developing high-throughput modems. For example, modem manufacturer Newtec is working with VSAT service provider Panasonic Avionics, and its maritime arm ITC Global, to test a new generation of modems.
ITC Global vice president for global engineering Sanjay Singam told OSJ that these modems would be tested in a maritime environment this year. “We have been restricted by the modem technology, but with Newtec’s hub solution for offshore, this will no longer be the case,” he said.
Newtec’s latest modem is based on its Dialog platform, which is in use on offshore vessels and drilling rigs for interaction with HTS. This uses the latest transmission standard of digital video broadcasting over a second generation of satellites (DVB-S2X) on the forward channel to HTS.
Dialog uses Newtec’s own dynamic bandwidth allocation technology, Mx-DMA, to transmit data on the return channel to satellites. Mr Singam said Newtec’s modems will support higher data transmission applications for vessel operations and crew welfare over VSAT, such as video streaming, voice over IP (VoIP), real-time ship monitoring, security camera streaming and high definition television.
ITC Global currently uses iDirect’s modems for its offshore VSAT services. But it intends to use Dialog modems with the VSAT network that Panasonic named in February this year as a “third-generation communications network”, which includes HTS operated by Eutelsat, Intelsat, Telesat and SES.
With upgraded modems, tri-band antennas and access to HTS connectivity, offshore vessel operators will be well-placed to meet the data and broadband challenges ahead.
Thor 7 provides a regional maritime Ka-band VSAT
Telenor provides a regional Ka-band VSAT service to maritime users over its Thor 7 satellite. It was launched into geostationary orbit from the Guiana Space Centre, in French Guiana, on an Ariane 5 launcher in April 2015.
This Space Systems Loral (SSL)-manufactured satellite provides VSAT connectivity with coverage over the North, Norwegian and Barents seas, the Baltic Sea, Mediterranean and the Red Sea and the Middle East. There is also a single spot beam for a Norwegian research base in Antarctica.
SSL included both a high throughput Ka-band payload and one for Ku-band widebeam on Thor 7. The satellite provides regional coverage with a favourable look-angle over the main European shipping lanes and uses relatively small spot beams for commercial shipping, fishing vessels and offshore support vessels.
Services are supported by iDirect’s Velocity platform that enables Telenor to offer virtual network operations and automatic and seamless hand-overs between spot beams. Bandwidth available over Thor 7 includes uplink speeds between 2 Mbps to 6 Mbps, depending on the antenna size. Telenor offers a range of fixed service packages for maritime VSAT connectivity.
Thor 7 specifications
Mass: 1,800 kg
Width: 9.5 m
Height: 5.5 m
Length: 24.8 m
Orbital location: 1˚ West
Service life: 15 years
Ka-band for maritime broadband services
30 spot beams
1 spot beam for Antarctica
1 steerable spot beam
Coverage: maritime areas surrounding Europe