Private LTE delivers for shipping giant

It takes more than three weeks for one of Seaboard Marine's cargo ships to travel from Newark, New Jersey, to Paitu, Peru. Customers with cargo on board expect the shipping company to keep a close eye on their goods throughout the journey, and Seaboard Marine is turning to private LTE to help fulfill that expectation.

Wireless Maritime Services (WMS) is starting to deploy private LTE networks on Seaboard Marine's cargo ships. The integrator got its start building networks for cruise ships and is now bringing together partners to create IoT networks on cargo vessels. Ericsson provides the LTE radios, Druid Software supplies the vessel's core network and mobile edge compute capability, and Globe Tracker outfits the refrigerated containers with telematics and also supplies a platform to expose the data collected to Seaboard Marine. WMS has deployed networks on a small number of Seaboard Marine vessels and expects to deploy more before the end of the year.

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The onboard LTE networks deployed by WMS use Band 12 700 MHz spectrum. Satellite backhaul is provided through Iridium or through VSAT terminals. 

Lee Mabie, VP of strategy, product development and marketing at WMS, said the networks give the ship's crew and customers more information about the status of perishable cargo. He said a significant portion of food on cargo ships spoils before it reaches its destination. That's why shippers are willing to invest in connectivity that can generate data about the status of perishable items before it's too late.

The next step will be pushing alerts to crew members when a refrigerator stops working. Mabie said WMS is working with Druid on a solution that will enable crew members to get a text message when a refrigerated container malfunctions. “That’s probably the killer app because it’s a vessel-specific benefit," Mabie said.

The shipping industry uses a mix of company-owned vessels and charters. Mabie said that for charter ships WMS has developed a portable version of its network. He said the core network components, the radio, and the satellite antenna can all be deployed on a ship's upper deck in less than one day. 

For WMS, the cargo ship business is a welcome opportunity that comes at a time when the cruise ship business is severely limited by Covid-19. Worldwide, there are about two million refrigerated containers, according to Mabie, and only about 20% of those are currently connected to the internet.

Mabie said the IoT opportunity extends beyond refrigerated containers to dry goods containers as well. He estimates that there are about 23 million of those, and that each one typically accommodates nine pallets. WMS is planning to add optional LoRa or Bluetooth capabilities to their cellular vessel network to support these kind of battery-powered sensors for dry containers and pallets.