Remote maintenance offshore

26.02.2020

Remote maintenance offshore: Connectivity on open oceans

Imagine a vessel adrift in the middle of the  ocean that has lost power or suffered steering damage. It’s a critical situation that must be addressed immediately. The cause might be engine failure, a faulty automation system, broken mechanics, or maybe a leakage from the stern shaft bearing. The situation has to be evaluated at sea. The critical faults identified and remote maintenance done, to prevent further damage, water intake or oil leakage. 

All the while, you must ensure the safety of the crew, the passengers, the cargo and the environment, before getting the vessel safely back to port.

Sensor data systems are helpful in many cases, but are insufficient when the fault needs fixing  offshore. If the fault cannot be found by analysing the sensor data and the situation is critical, the professionals on board need to be supported by experts onshore. 

“Most of the problems we can solve using our sensor data. But when the sensor data is not enough, we need to step into the real world. Then we use augmented reality technologies like POINTR remote collaboration to show us what spare parts, what tools, and what is the real problem on the site.”, describes Johan Sjöblom, product manager of new digital services at Wärtsilä.

Modern remote collaboration solutions enable experts to collaborate with the crew in real time, using augmented reality. The previous standard practice of instruction by phone has been known to be inaccurate, unclear and inconvenient. Also, common consumer smart phone communication tools are not cyber secure. Low connectivity means they do not function reliably in such demanding conditions.

Low connectivity a challenge for remote maintenance

The challenge for deploying collaboration tools in the maritime industry is connectivity. This is the critical requirement for achieving the benefits of remote collaboration and remote maintenance. There are two key aspects to the connectivity: connectivity to and from the vessel and connectivity within the vessel. 

Many newer vessels are now equipped with satellite broadband. Majority of vessels at sea still rely on low bandwidth satellite communication. This makes it far more challenging, as there might be limited connectivity in certain locations within the vessel, such as command bridge.

The deployed solution needs to be designed for these conditions. Connectivity-wise, the solution must function with lower end satellite connectivity systems. Working with low, and sometimes zero connectivity, it must also maintain the session, together with the annotations made when the connection is cut.

As an example, a technician may need to go into the machine room, which is in offline mode, and collect material. They then must  go back to the bridge to transmit the material, receive instructions, and return to the engine room to implement these instructions. The solution has to be able to maintain the session and it has to be reliable in this context.

“Connectivity is one of the key technical and business issues at the moment. But luckily it’s going to be improved with the proliferation of low orbit satellites and satellite broadband connections, which are also affordable price-wise”, states Dr. Boris Krassi, the CEO of Delta Cygni Labs referring to the challenges maritime customers bring up in conversations about connectivity.

Benefits for business and the environment

Successful deployment of a suitable remote collaboration solution can achieve significant efficiency and safety benefits in the maritime industry. It allows faster service and higher quality ‘ship-to-shore’ communication. 

The maritime ecosystem is composed of several diverse sectors including merchant and cruise vessels, off-shore, port infrastructure and ship building.  A feature of this ecosystem is that certain highly networked service companies – like Wärtsilä, ABB, and Kongsberg – provide a variety of services to multiple sectors within the ecosystem. “We think that remote collaboration will have the biggest impact on the operations of those service aggregators and they will benefit the most”, Dr. Krassi estimates.

The maritime business benefits is not the only perspective: “With remote collaboration we can reduce the probability of a big ecological catastrophe. We can speak about the Baltic Sea, where the traffic of tankers has increased. Whenever there’s a problem it can be addressed very quickly. And then an even bigger impact will be in the Arctic when the ice melts and the northern passage will be used more and more.”, Explains Dr. Krassi.

As the locations in the Arctic Sea are still extremely remote, getting physical help to the crew is often not possible. Remote collaboration is the only option in hard-to-reach areas like this. Therefore, it will increasingly become a key factor in keeping the Arctic environment clean. Readiness for remote maintenance is especially important, as maritime traffic in the Arctic’s northern passage is steadily increasing.

“Of course savings, efficiency, and new business opportunities achieved are important. These are the key business drivers for the ship owners and shipping companies. At the same time we have to really think about the very efficient ways to keep our seas clean. If it’s a leakage or other critical situation that would result in a collision and therefore pollution. You can help the crew whenever needed to do remote maintenance, and you know what kind of resources are needed to address a challenging situation once it appears”, Dr. Krassi opines about the large scale benefits of remote collaboration in maritime operations.

Finding the right solution: Key features to evaluate

In this age of digitalisation the valid question is: ‘what are the vital features to look for when evaluating the remote collaboration solutions on the market?’ 

In most maritime cases, at least one party is working with low connectivity. 

Therefore, reliability is the primary feature: the solution has to work in very challenging conditions. Far away from the coast and through the available satellite network. Despite the low connectivity, it has to provide a clear image of the situation. Based on customers’ experiences, it is clear that throughout the maritime industry the key factor, the real deal breaker, is reliability with connectivity.

Another feature is scalability. It is impossible to know when and where problems will occur. The solution has to be deployed, in advance and at scale, to all vessels. Scaling up throughout the fleet and with on-shore personnel, in conjunction with limitless global usage, should be easy. 

The third key feature,  becoming more and more important, is cyber security. As mentioned, shipping companies and vessels at sea are extremely networked enterprises. They are comprising of a large number of sub-contractors, suppliers and partners.

It is vital that the whole ecosystem is using certified and secure cyber security tools to prevent digital break-ins and leaks of business critical information.

Dr. Krassi sums up:  “The three key features you should evaluate in professional remote collaboration solution are security, reliability and scalability”.