Videoconferencing applications such as Skype will work over maritime satellite, but they can be spotty with even the best connections. These programs consume a lot of bandwidth, potentially raising costs for operators.
DigiGone, of Largo, Fla., is trying to change these dynamics.
The company has developed a suite of satellite-based videoconferencing programs that rival Skype and others for video quality but consume much less data. Its maritime-specific programs have uses in telemedicine, crew welfare, vessel support and navigation, among others, according to Michael Dunleavy, DigiGone’s president.
These programs are based on DigiGone’s SecureChat application, which was developed in 2007 for special operations forces and the intelligence community. The company expanded into the maritime market in 2010.
“The maritime industry relies solely on satellite and there was definitive need for low-bandwidth communication capability because maritime satellite is so expensive,” Dunleavy said in an interview.
DigiGone’s SecureChat programs are similar to Skype and other commercial videoconferencing services. However, the company developed a proprietary signal compression technology that preserves video quality while using about 90 percent less bandwidth, Dunleavy said.
Standard videoconferencing on the DigiGone platform consumes as little as 90 Kbps, while audio-only calls use 12 Kbps and text messages use even less, according to DigiGone. The bandwidth settings can be tweaked to a customer’s preferences.
“This feature is ideal for satellite and wireless users, as it significantly reduces the individual cost for satellite and wireless airtime per session,” Dunleavy said.
SecureChat is DigiGone’s flagship software program and is the backbone of its other maritime communications offerings. The application allows video streaming, video teleconferencing, voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), text messaging and file transfer.
The program was developed for personal computers but now works on the Android platform, and the company is working to develop compatibility with Apple’s iOS operating system for iPhone and iPad. All of DigiGone’s software is fully encrypted.
DigiGone offers four marine-specific variations of the SecureChat app.
DigiView allows remote access to a vessel’s onboard closed-circuit television system. With this program, a captain and other crew monitor the ship’s cameras from a computer anywhere on board the vessel. The program lets the home office remotely access and control one or more cameras at once, and the videos can be recorded and saved.
The DigiMed telemedicine app was developed to help treat injured mariners, Dunleavy said. Doctors and nurses with George Washington University Medical Center’s 24-hour operations center can chat face-to-face with the ship’s medical officer and the injured person to determine what care is necessary. They can demonstrate treatment instructions that might not be clear over the phone (see story, PM#180).
The program allows multiple people to log into the videoconference from different locations. For instance, an on-call nurse could be joined by a specialist and a general practitioner, and all three would be able to view and interact with the patient in real time.
“We’ve all been on the phone with a friend or a family member and we might have something we’re trying to describe and the other person is not getting the full picture,” Dunleavy said. “Now, the doctor can see the situation firsthand, and in a lot of cases make an immediate assessment of what the problem is.”
The company’s DigiTech program offers remote technical diagnostic services, including the ability to show the mechanical problem to a specialist thousands of miles away and get immediate repair or troubleshooting suggestions.
The DigiCrew app, released late last year, is intended to augment existing satellite-based crew welfare offerings with video chat, voice calling and 160-character text messages. Calls made using DigiCrew typically cost about one-tenth of the price of a similar call made over traditional satellite phone, according to DigiGone.
Maersk Line Ltd. hired DigiGone almost three years ago to augment its anti-piracy efforts. According to Dunleavy, Maersk wanted a low-bandwidth way to remotely access a vessel’s CCTV system following the Maersk Alabama pirate hijacking in 2009.
Alabama was the first ship to use the DigiView program. Now, the company’s products are used by about half of the vessels in Maersk Line’s U.S.-flagged fleet.
“The CCTV system also helped by recording security incidents in port,” Robert H. Sienel, captain of Maersk Utah, said in a report issued by Maersk Line in March 2014.
“In Djibouti, a longshoreman had a disagreement with the chief mate and was eventually escorted off the vessel,” he said. “The gangway camera recorded the whole incident and … we could have presented the recording to the port showing the incident and how the individual was properly removed.”
Horatiu Vintila, chief officer of Maersk Pittsburgh, said he has come to appreciate the ability to monitor the engine room over CCTV.
“When we’re getting fire alarms in one of the compartments where the cameras were installed, it provides a quick and live feedback if we have a real problem or just a nuisance alarm,” he said in the report. “If there is a real problem I could instruct the person inspecting the compartment of the situation beforehand.”
Cameras mounted off the stern that can be accessed through DigiView help eliminate blind spots, record pilot boardings and disembarkments, and show when tugs are made up and let go.
“The ability to do this in a low-bandwidth environment is what allows it to occur in the first place,” Dunleavy said. “It doesn’t clog up the entire bandwidth and (others on board) can continue to use other satellite applications at the same time.”
DigiGone’s programs are sold through third-party satellite retailers and can be tailored to a customer’s specific needs.
Installation costs and ongoing monthly costs of the service vary based on numerous factors, Dunleavy said, including the type of services included and an individual customer’s satellite usage plan.
The SecureChat programs work with Inmarsat, Thuraya and VSAT satellite systems. They do not function on Iridium’s low-Earth orbit network.
DigiGone wouldn’t disclose how many vessels are currently using its programs, however Dunleavy expects rapid growth in the coming years.
“We see enormous potential that will be unleashed by the availability of low-cost video communication with the ship,” he said. “Shipowners can add teleconferencing without blowing their satcom budget. The return on investment can be nearly instantaneous.”