- Technology - The communications conundrum: matching form with function

By SuperyachtNews

The communications conundrum: matching form with function

Balancing powerful, high-quality service with the smallest possible antennas is vital for superyacht communications…

The team at Intellian explore how the balance between powerful comms, high-quality service and the smallest possible antennas is vital to delivering essential, aesthetically pleasing, communications for superyachts

The André Hoek-designed superyacht Marie epitomises the best-of-both-worlds principle which underpins modern superyachts. As elegant as she is imposing, her sleek and sculpted lines betray a purposefulness that speaks volumes regarding her capabilities. Hand-in-hand with those dynamic looks, the high-calibre materials which have gone into her construction and lavish interior fittings subtly but firmly emphasise the standard of comfort guests can anticipate, both on charter and the regatta circuit.

From the perspective of satellite communications service providers, therein lies the rub. Owners, charterers and guests on superyachts have now, as a matter of course, come to expect internet access at sea on a par with the service levels they enjoy on land. The guest experience is seriously diminished if the high-speed, high-quality bandwidth required for entertainment, communication and social media applications is lacking. By the same token, commerce never sleeps; so dependable and stable connectivity which will support the exchange of time-sensitive business dialogues and enable the real-time oversight required for informed decision-making is essential for owners, crew and guests alike.

All of this is, of course, perfectly achievable, as demonstrated by commercial vessels which are routinely equipped with large antennas. Where racing superyachts are concerned, however, the risk of antennas compromising speed or stability and marring the vessel’s aesthetic appearance are primary considerations.

“On these high-performance racing yachts with their carbon-fibre spars and Kevlar sails, owners don’t really want anything which could potentially interrupt the vessel’s lines or impair efficiency,” says Ben Hextall, founder of maritime communications specialists OceanWeb. “If you could invent an antenna that was eggcup-sized, that’s what they’d all go for. They’ve spent an enormous amount on their yachts, and they’re racing, so putting any antennas on at all is seen as a compromise. However, they need internet, so that compromise has to be made somewhere.”


Single-antenna solution

It was precisely this issue that faced OceanWeb when it came to specifying an antenna system for Marie during the course of a major refit. Mounting communications antennas on the mast minimises deck clutter and extends their effective horizon, but the potential trade-off is a reduction in aerodynamic performance owing to the antennas’ weight, windage and position in the sails’ airflow.

Nevertheless, a solution needed to be found. Marie’s captain, Chad Thieken, had mentioned his dissatisfaction with the superyacht’s existing VSAT installation to Hextall, observing that the service was particularly poor in the Pacific and that a solution was needed to ensure optimum performance in fringe reception areas. Hextall initially suggested that mounting two one-metre antennas on the mizzen mast would be ideal, and mocked up some photographs accordingly which were sent to Thieken for discussion with Marie’s owner. However, when the latter expressed concerns about a dual-antenna setup in light of Marie’s status as a performance yacht, all parties agreed to proceed with a single-antenna solution.

Hextall opted for an Intellian v100NX antenna with a 25W BUC. “When asked why,” he recalls, “I explained that the high-power BUC would help overcome signal attenuation by the sails and blockage by the mast, improve performance in adverse weather conditions and help acquire a satellite more quickly.

“We chose Intellian because we trust them, like their products and have had great service from them in the past,” continues Hextall. “In a previous project – fitting out Black Pearl – the boat had three rotating masts, which obviously creates a tricky scenario in terms of mounting an antenna. We arrived at a solution for that within three weeks. Intellian’s programmers in Korea actually wrote a bespoke piece of firmware for us, and we got the system working.”


Essential for business

Captains’ reliance upon connectivity for carrying out fundamental daily operations over and above catering for the online needs of their guests cannot be underestimated.

“Captains can spend almost the entire day exchanging emails to check that the marina and the guests are ready, as well as sorting out hotels, provisioning and so on. In fact, the core of the bandwidth is used for essential tasks and transactions – these yachts are multi-million-pound business concerns, so dependable connectivity is vital,” comments Hextall.

Hextall explains that VSAT is the only way to guarantee sufficient communications bandwidth at sea, but notes that some areas in the Pacific are still without coverage, particularly towards the tip of South America and en route to the Galapagos Islands. This situation regularly becomes a deciding factor in clients’ passage planning. 

“When we show our customers the satellite footprints, they will quite often change their routes, just to maintain high-speed VSAT connectivity.”

Hextall adds that many customers are also opting to use VSAT rather than shore-based services when vessels are docked, willing to pay the higher costs in return for always-on connectivity. 

“All the cellular providers will offer a connection, sometimes up to 20Mbps, but none will guarantee quality of service,” he points out, “so we configure the usage according to priority. We might use VSAT for a vital software update, but stream a movie over 4G.”


Looking ahead

In conclusion, Hextall points to his choice of the multi-orbit, multi-band Intellian v100NX antenna as a logical strategy with the imminent advent of NGSO networks. 

“We’re watching networks such as OneWeb and others with interest,” he says. “We hope that LEO networks will allow us to deliver twice the bandwidth to customers requiring large amounts of data for approximately the same cost, and the v100NX permits us to do that without changing hardware.” 

Investing now in antenna systems that are LEO-ready allows customers to contemplate a time, just around the corner when the hitherto unthinkable concept of genuinely global, high-quality and cost-effective VSAT coverage becomes a reality.

Photo credit: SY Marie

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