Mariners navigate remote e-commerce opportunities

A collaborative pilot project between five organizations from both the private and public sector is testing the sea legs of several e-commerce applications.

The Marine e-commerce applications project (MeCA) is a partnership between Telesat, Collaborative Network Technologies Inc., Memorial University

of Newfoundland, SmartLabrador, Marine Atlantic and the Woodward Group of Companies.

The latter two are shipping organizations that run passenger and cargo vessels between Newfoundland and the mainland. On board five of their ships are satellite antenna which are being used to test online applications ranging from telemedicine to automated teller machines.

Marine Atlantic has equipped three of its vessels, the Smallwood, the Caribou and the Leif Erricson, with satellite and networking equipment and hardware in order to run a variety of applications.

The Smallwood currently has an ATM in operation for passenger use, but not without some original thinking in order to get the technology running right. The ATM is serial-based, which presented some difficulties in order to run it over an IP network, said Murray Hupman, CIO for Marine Atlantic. “”We had to buy some pretty interesting converters to basically get that serial signal tunneled to a modem that was on the shore.””

Passengers can see where their ship is relative to their final destination using GPS-enabled map readouts and can access the Internet with their notebooks via several wireless access points on board. Marine Atlantic is trying to figure out an appropriate revenue model for that service, but may end up offering it to passengers for free, said Hupman.

Marine Atlantic has also enabled its vessels with technology designed to help the crew. Video-conferencing, for example, is a way to conduct meetings with staff on shore. “”For us, with the vessels being on the go a fair bit in the summertime, it’s a good way to communicate face-to-face,”” said Hupman.

Marine Atlantic is also testing the possibility of offering online courses to crew while they’re at sea. The Learners at Sea program, as it’s being called, will offer courses in meteorology that can be completed while on the vessel.

The MeCA project has been underway for about a year, but Marine Atlantic has been involved with similar projects in the past. The company has tested teletourism programs on board, as well as a mobile medical service which linked the Smallwood to a hospital in Port aux Basques, Nlfd., one of Marine Atlantic’s ports of call. The ship used a 2.4-metre antenna on C-band for that project. The antenna has since been converted to Ku-band for MeCA.

The Woodward Group is a relative newcomer to the MeCA project and will test satellite technology on its vessels the Robert Bond and the Northern Ranger. Those ships will begin their runs between Newfoundland and the mainland starting June 10, barring ice conditions, until the end of the season in mid-November.

Dave Leyden, administration manager for Woodward, expects to see the same types of applications currently being used by Marine Atlantic. “”From our perspective, if we can get these systems on these ships, that’s going to be able to give us the ability to use Interac machines when we’re sailing,”” he said.

Leyden added that instantaneous credit card transactions will also be available while on board. Currently, the ships can accept credit card payments from passengers, but can’t process them until they’re back on shore.

The possibilities of what can be accomplished while at sea increase exponentially when satellite technology is introduced, said Paul Bush, vice-president of broadcasting and corporate development at Telesat. The Ottawa-based company, a subsidiary of BCE Inc., is the satellite provider for the MeCA project and has provided similar technology to parts of Canada that are unreachable by traditional Internet infrastructure.

For Telesat, MeCA represents a way not only to test the viability of shipboard communications, but the robustness of satellite technology in remote environments.

“”Anything that we’re able to prove on a marine application we can also use in a fixed application on the ground,”” said Bush. “”The same application for telemedicine and e-commerce (used at sea) we’ll use in communities in Labrador, in Northern Ontario, in any areas where there’s not access to terrestrial facilities today.””

According to Bush, trials at sea have resulted in some applications that were previously unthought of. Telemedicine can be used to remotely diagnose a patient, but the same principal can be applied to troubleshooting technology. Using videoconferencing, a technician on shore can render an opinion on technology at sea and advise the crew accordingly.

“”There’s a few applications that I think they hadn’t thought of that are coming out of it and that’s really what we want to see,”” said Bush.

MeCA is expected to run about another year in pilot mode. The project is being funded partially by the Canadian and European Space Agencies.


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