31 Ronald Spithout, Inmarsat
Inmarsat Maritime’s Ronald Spithout has overseen the development of the Fleet Xpress platform, which has put digital solutions on 7,600 ships. Traffic is reported to be doubling every six months
Maritime president has led the company from FleetBroadband to Fleet Xpress, which has placed the potential of data analytics at the centre of vessel operations
RONALD Spithout took on the role of president of maritime business at Inmarsat, the mobile satellite communications provider, in December 2014.
Back then, although the FleetBroadband L-band service was up and running, the ‘connected ship’ was a vision and the internet of things (IoT) merely a dream for a sceptical maritime sector.
During 2015 and 2016, Mr Spithout led two years of planning and training, and spoke at countless conferences, to explain the industry-wide benefits of higher data speeds.
His commitment only paid dividends with the roll-out of Fleet Xpress, which combined L-band reliability with Ka-band technology. The platform has proved a foundation for an ecosystem of maritime applications.
From a standing start in 2016, Fleet Xpress is now installed on 7,500 ships. It offers faster speeds but also a dedicated bandwidth that can be used for applications as basic as electronic chart display and information system (Ecdis) downloads, to sophisticated telemedicine, vessel performance benchmarking and after-sales service from shipyards.
Data analytics, a core element of maritime digitalisation, is now being taken on board by most shipowners and managers.
The effect of this is that Inmarsat is seeing a doubling of traffic every six to eight months. In March 2019, Inmarsat made Crew Xpress available on Fleet Xpress, which gives an incentive for shipmanagers to invest in crew connectivity, especially in crew welfare.
Application developers have responded to the increasing acceptance of digitalisation: onboard sensor reading has grown exponentially, and improved levels of safety have become linked to better connectivity.
This led to Inmarsat launching its IoT platform, Fleet Data, early in 2019, allowing ship operators to easily collect, transfer and analyse data through third-party applications.
“Containerships are doing a terabyte of data (1,000 gigabytes) a month. We are now seeing the first signs of the connected vessel,” Mr Spithout said.
So rapid has the transition been from FleetBroadband to Fleet Xpress that revenue for Inmarsat Maritime’s business suffered a 10% decline in the first half of 2019.
However, Mr Spithout explained, clients tend to run a new service for the same purposes as the old service — but when they understand what the new capability can help them achieve, usage picks up rapidly.
The initial level is cost-saving, followed by higher levels of interaction between charterer and ship operator, leading to service operations centres.
In a new move, the platform will enable anonymous and aggregated vessel-type benchmarking of data volumes against similar vessels captured in the Fleet Xpress database.
With eight new satellites on order, ready to be launched, stationed, tested and tuned in by 2023, the era of the connected ship will transition from the future vision of 2014 to the current reality of the early 2020s.
Alongside this investment in the technology of connectivity, Inmarsat is working with start-ups and with students because here, Mr Spithout believes, are the most creative ideas.
“We get close to colleges because all good ideas come from students,” he says.
The business development team has been encouraging students to go to Inmarsat’s offices so the company can “pick up the signals”.