Maritime radio has been with us since 1900 but it only gained mainstream use from the 1930s onwards. Of course, its use has grown massively since 14 April 1912, when RMS Titanic radio operator Jack Phillips initially sent "CQD" from the stricken cruise liner. Translated as "All stations: distress" this call eventually saved over 700 lives.
Safety was the driver of perhaps the most important development in maritime radio, when in 1999 the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) was adopted, and subsequently new automated functions developed, such as Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and integration with satellite positioning equipment.
GMDSS enabled a more integrated approach to maritime radio, starting with the Cobham SATCOM developed SAILOR 6000 Series, which allowed all equipment required in a GMDSS installation to be operated and serviced from a single touch-screen display.
The next steps
Interestingly, the next, at least near-future step in maritime radio is not 100% focused on safety. Instead there are plans to use radio frequencies to enable low-cost data connectivity between ships at sea and from ship to shore, primarily for e-Navigation applications. The system is known as VDES or VHF Data Exchange System.
With coverage available up to 50 km from the nearest land-based equipment, VDES will make it more economical for ships to maintain a data connection at sea by eliminating the need to use satellites in coastal waters, while not compromising on the global connectivity enabled by satcom. Primary applications for VDES are initially expected to be based on data exchange regarding arrival to, and departure from ports, passage of VTS areas, route exchange between ships, and navigation of offshore project sites.
Cobham SATCOM is a key player in the development of VDES, having contributed to the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) recommendation for specifications with knowledge and trials aboard two new Scanlines hybrid ferries operating in the Baltic Sea. The trials were part of EfficienSea2, an EU-funded project established to develop innovative and smart solutions for efficient, safe and sustainable maritime operations through improved connectivity for ships.
While safety will always come first for maritime radio, a future in which data can be transmitted on VHF frequencies could position a technology that is over a century old, as a contributor to contemporary digital transformation.