FB150 performs faultlessly in lifeboat challenge

This case study is a summary of the FleetBroadband 150 (FB150) MFE conducted onboard the lifeboat, Pride of the Humber, which is owned and operated by the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

Hostile environment

The RNLI was founded as a charity in 1824 to save the lives of people in distress in the seas around the British Isles. Since then it has grown to become an organisation supported by 40,000 volunteers, providing a 24-hour lifeboat search and rescue service from 235 lifeboat stations around the coasts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Humber Lifeboat Station at Spurn Point, East Yorkshire, is the only RNLI all-weather lifeboat station with a full-time residential crew. Equipped with a powerful Severn Class lifeboat (an all-weather vessel), the station is responsible for rescues in the North Sea – one of the most hostile and unpredictable seas in the world. In stormy weather, Pride of the Humber takes a relentless battering from high seas and strong winds, so she – and the equipment she carries – must be highly resilient. Additionally, all communications equipment must operate to the high standards of performance and reliability demanded by the government and civil sectors.

The quality of some satellite services is adversely affected by heavy rain, a condition known as ‘rain fade’. However, Inmarsat has a 30-year record of 99.99 per cent service availability, ensuring its maritime services work in any weather conditions – without a hint of rain fade, even during torrential downpours and high seas.

Emerging comms requirement

In response to an approach by Inmarsat in early 2010, the RNLI agreed to participate in an FB150 evaluation onboard Pride of the Humber. As one of its busiest vessels, operating in one of the world’s most challenging maritime environments, she would provide a true test of the reliability and ruggedness of the FB150 equipment and service.

For the RNLI, this was the perfect opportunity to assess an industryleading option for equipping its vessels with internet connectivity and voice communications via satellite.

“We decided to participate in the MFE, because there are various issues coming over the horizon that will require internet connectivity onboard the boat, such as the transmission of navigation data for the future e-navigation systems, and also operating secure voice networks”. Peter Bradley, Operations staff officer, RNLI

The RNLI communications officer installed a Skipper™ 150 from Addvalue Communications Pte Ltd of Singapore onboard Pride of the Humber in 2010. As with all standard FleetBroadband implementations, installation of the lightweight, three-transponder antenna and below-deck unit was straightforward and completed in less than four hours. The system was set up to give different access rights to different users through the Skipper 150 web interface. For example, the crew log-in restricted the coxswain to switching the FB150 connection on and off, and to using it as configured. A separate secure log-in was provided for the administrator, which gave full access to configure the system and change settings.

Speed and ease of operations

The first requirement for any communications system used on an RNLI lifeboat is that it should be totally reliable; the second that it should be easy to use. There is no margin for error during a ‘shout’ (the name given to the station’s emergency response to a distress call), because a breakdown of communication at any stage could mean the difference between life and death.

“The demands on communications during a shout can be intense. The navigator might be getting our position from the coastguard while the mechanic will be talking to a casualty. Then we might need to talk to a doctor on shore or arrange to meet an ambulance. There is a lot of information to be passed, and it’s got to be quick, clear and concise.” David Steenvoorden, Superintendent Coxswain

With its long-standing reputation for reliability and availability, the Inmarsat service is perfect for operational situations that demand guaranteed communications. In an extreme maritime environment such as the North Sea, there is the added complication of operating from a platform that is often subject to violent movement in any direction – testing the ability of the FleetBroadband terminal to maintain an unbroken link with the satellite. However, the ability of the FB150 stabilised directional antenna (and all FleetBroadband antennas) to lock on to the Inmarsat geostationary satellite in any conditions means that maintaining a connection is not a problem.

“The lifeboat is an extremely dynamic vessel. She can move around and change direction in any plane very, very fast. On one long shout we had an extremely rough, head-on sea, so we had the biggest amount of motion you can get on a Severn Class boat. However, we never lost the FB150 connection. It performed extremely well. We like to see if we can test new kit to destruction, but in this instance we couldn’t.” David Steenvoorden, Superintendent Coxswain

Another major benefit of FB150 is that it is intuitive and easy to use. The crew of Pride of the Humber could pick up the FleetBroadband handset and make a voice call as easily and quickly as they would on land, and with excellent clarity. Equally, data communications were available via a laptop at the click of a mouse, enabling them to access web pages, upload and download data and exchange email messages with shore at any time.

Guaranteed, secure communications

The RNLI guarantees that it can provide a service as far out as 100 nautical miles from shore for both the UK and the Republic of Ireland. This means that Pride of the Humber often has to operate beyond the range of VHF radio and GSM and 3G networks. Before she was fitted with FB150, the crew had to rely on MF radio, but during the trial, FB150 provided guaranteed voice and data connectivity for all voyages.

“The Humber lifeboat in particular does go out a long way quite regularly to commercial vessels, medical evacuations and that sort of thing, and the crew can find themselves 60 nautical miles out from the coast without any VHF cover. So the added benefit of having the FB150 is that you can have long-range communications that are also very secure.” Peter Bradley, Operations staff officer, RNLI

Security of sensitive data is a key issue for a civil organisation like the RNLI, so it is important to work with a trusted provider like Inmarsat, which liaises closely with its distribution partners to meet the information-assurance requirements of civil and government users.

Enhanced operational efficiency

FB150 enabled the crew of Pride of the Humber to make more productive use of their time at sea when returning from shouts, completing routine tasks that would otherwise have had to wait until they returned to shore. The Inmarsat service allowed them to connect securely via Citrix to the RNLI portal on the internet, where they could access a range of software applications. Peter Bradley said: “We tried out our own applications like SAP to do the boat’s maintenance records and that sort of thing. It is a lot easier for the crew to do it immediately after a shout than having to wait until hours later when they get ashore. It saves them time, and time is money.

Distribution partner Stratos provided its AmosConnect client for the MFE, which is optimised for email over the Inmarsat network. This made it easy for the crew to send or receive emails as quickly during a shout as they would while on shore – which could be invaluable when exchanging information with other emergency services or a vessel in distress. Stratos also provided its Mobility Management service (for costeffective routeing of voice calls from the vessel to agreed telephone numbers on shore) and the SPOS weather service from Meteo Group. The latter enabled the crew to download up-to-date weather forecasts, wave height, wind direction, wind speed and other maritime data via the FB150. Stratos also deployed its ‘Trench’ firewall system to protect the RNLI against internet threats.

Helping the RNLI to tell its story

As a charity, publicity is vital to the RNLI, because vivid, up-to-date videos and photos of dramatic sea rescues help the organisation to attract fresh donations. However, under normal circumstances it can be difficult to make images available quickly for use by broadcasters and newspapers, because lifeboats often take several hours to return from shouts. Peter Bradley said: “It’s terrifically important for the RNLI to be able to publish what it is doing as instantaneously as possible. The generation of funds from the general public relies on the broadcast message that we put out.”

FB150 solved this problem for Pride of the Humber by providing a guaranteed IP data connection at up to 150kbps, which enabled the crew to email video and photos back to base while still at sea. As part of the evaluation, the RNLI used Pinnacle video software, which is used by professional broadcasters to edit and compress raw video into the most efficient and cost-effective format for transmission over a satellite network. Stratos provided a decoder at its point of presence on shore, which uncompressed the video file before onward transmission to the RNLI.

This set-up enabled the crew of Pride of the Humber to take dramatic sea-rescue video straight from the vessel’s three onboard video cameras and email broadcastquality footage back to base via FB150 immediately after the action. The crew trialled the system during a shout, sending a 5Mb section of video minutes after it had been captured. The file took about five minutes to transfer over the 150kbps link.

“I had that video by email on my desktop within minutes of it being shot and edited. That has tremendous value from the public relations point of view. It goes straight into our press centre, and then straight on to our website for the public to see. Without FB150, it would have taken 16 hours to get the video back to shore, because that is how long it took the lifeboat to return from that particular shout.” Peter Bradley, Operations staff officer, RNLI

FB150 and Pinnacle can also support high-quality live video. This could prove invaluable during a shout for telemedicine or remote diagnostics of mechanical issues, or to guide other vessels to the scene of a rescue. The vessel was also equipped with a videoconferencing application from Polycom.

Summary of how FB150 was used on Pride of the Humber

Guaranteed communications - The robust build of the FB150 antenna (designed to withstand extreme maritime conditions) combined with the ultra-reliable Inmarsat satellite network to enable 24/7 voice and data communications for Pride of the Humber.

Highly secure - The crew were able to take full advantage of Inmarsat’s secure network. Fully compatible with major encryption standards for voice and data, our network is trusted by government and military organisations around the world.

Easy to use - Crew members were able to use FB150 ‘out of the box’. It fitted seamlessly into the existing communications environment onboard Pride of the Humber.

Improved efficiency - The crew used FB150 to make best use of their time when returning from shouts, by accessing the RNLI portal on the internet to complete routine administrative tasks.

Fast video transfer - FB150 cut the time it normally takes to get dramatic rescue video back to base for PR purposes. It also provided a facility for live video and videoconferencing.

Help in a crisis - During the MFE, the RNLI tested the Inmarsat 505 Emergency Calling service. Any 505 call from a FleetBroadband phone handset is directly routed to the nominated Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) free of charge.

Ideal for civil and government vessels

The MFE demonstrated that FB150 is a reliable, versatile, secure and cost-effective communications package for civil and government personnel operating under pressure in harsh maritime conditions.

“FB150 has given very clear voice communications, very quick data communications and very secure communications. And we’re very happy with the way the trial has gone.” Peter Bradley, Operations staff officer, RNLI “We sometimes have to transfer really sensitive information. At the moment I haven’t got that when I’m offshore, so FB150 would be a really advantageous piece of kit for that situation.” David Steenvoorden, Superintendent Coxswain