Interview: Inmarsat Maritime President Frank Coles On Using ‘Big Data’ in Shipping

Frank Coles has a Master Mariner qualification from the South Glamorgan Institute in Cardiff, Wales and a Masters in Maritime Law from University of Wales, Cardiff. He has held his current position as President of Inmarsat’s maritime business since early 2012.
Frank Coles has a Master Mariner qualification from the South Glamorgan Institute in Cardiff, Wales and a Masters in Maritime Law from University of Wales, Cardiff. He has held his current position as President of Inmarsat’s maritime business since early 2012. Image courtesy Inmarsat

While at the Connecticut Maritime Association conference in Stamford, Connecticut last week, one of the common threads tying many of the discussions together was that of “big data,” something which is now far more available to the shipowner than ever before.

It seems shipowners and ship managers of the future will live or die by the data they are able to gather and properly interpret, but as Inmarsat Maritime President, Frank Coles, comments in my interview with him, arriving at this ultra-efficient state of operations may take a little while.

For many, analyzing immense amounts of data gathered from their ships has been a nearly impossible job due to limited shore-side resources to analyze and make timely operational decisions on it.

Coles paints the picture of an owner which may have 75 ships with only three IT people managing those ships. Their issue has flatly been that they don’t have the resources to handle this task. However, this is now changing as “engine manufacturers and other vendors are building their systems with sensors and are creating fleet operations centers where they sift through the data, take the most relevant data, run algorithms to interpret that data, and spit out the analyses at the other end.”

A quick survey at the CMA clearly shows that the industry has recognized this issue and that vendors are ready to move on it. However, Coles mentions another issue… protocol.

A ship is a highly integrated system and in order to make the greatest efficiency gains, the data must also be integrated.

“The problem is aligning all the stakeholders,” notes Coles. “Yards, vendors, owners, ship managers, and class need to agree what data should be there, and what format it should be in. There are many standards and if you’re going to have a centralized system, the data all needs to have the same protocol.”

“In maritime, we’re looking to provide a managed provider solution. At this time, we have 75 application providers which are looking to build applications on our platform to service the industry. And that stretches across many providers including weather, charts, sensor companies and of course media.

“The whole thing is that there’s a million seafarers at sea at any one time, give or take, and the great conundrum is to reach all of them at any one time.”

What have you gained from the discussions this week?

“I’ve been very encouraged by the number of shipping companies who are looking at remote monitoring of their ships on a much more sophisticated level. There’s at least one provider here which has a 7×24 fleet monitoring system feeding a green, yellow, red status of the systems.

“And we’re not just talking about the main engines, we’re talking about everything.

“I can see in 10 to15 years’ time, ships having greatly reduced crews, or different kinds of people on board the ship during their voyages. The industry seems to be embracing the idea that technology and communications together can bring them to a much more efficient way of running their operations.”

Do you think Rolls-Royce’s idea of a remote controlled ship is far-fetched?

“No. Definitely not. I mean, the far-fetched part of it is the road blockers in our industry, it’s the mind-set, the culture that is the problem. Everybody born after 1980 is a native of this new way of thinking, unfortunately the IMO is populated by people born before that time. Class is the same.

“The IMO is a great body which has done great things for us, but it hasn’t kept up with the times. Tradition is its motto, and caution is its war cry.

“Until we change the way we think about what technology can give us, we won’t get there as fast as we could.”

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