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Satellite providers offer more weather forecast options at sea

Dec 5, 2014 04:13 PM
An iPad Mini displays OCENS GRIB Explorer Plus for iPad, with marine weather imagery for eastern Florida and the Caribbean.

Courtesy OCENS Inc.

An iPad Mini displays OCENS GRIB Explorer Plus for iPad, with marine weather imagery for eastern Florida and the Caribbean.

A growing range of services is available to deliver weather information underway and even far from shore.
 
Among them are SpotCast, delivered via satellite phone; KVH, which will transmit AWT’s BonVoyage System high-resolution weather data via the IP-MobileCast content delivery service, and plans to offer delivery of AWT’s global weather data to subscribing vessels over the mini-VSAT Broadband network; and SiriusXM Master Mariner.

OCENS SpotCast is a worldwide weather delivery service designed specifically for satellite phones. According to the company, it delivers “well-crafted, multi-period weather forecasts across several weather variables in a condensed format. SMS-capable satellite phones with built-in GPS positioning possess the essential architecture to request weather content.” The low-bandwidth data capabilities of handheld satellite phones were previously an obstacle for delivery directly to the phone, the company said. OCENS SpotCast overcomes this obstacle with its short-form weather reports that are generated automatically based on the device’s GPS position. SpotCast will work with the inReach SE personal messaging and tracking device and virtually any smartphone with built-in GPS. 

Jeff Thomassen, chief technology officer at the company, says SpotCast Weather service costs $20 to activate an account and as little as $6 per month for 24-hour text weather reports. The reports are available in 48-hour or 72-hour formats as well. These reports are delivered on demand to the user’s device such as an inReach SE/Extreme, Iridium 9575 satellite phone, Iridium GO phone or Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro. 

OCENS offers two other services. One service, called WeatherNet, has warehoused a large collection of weather, ocean and fishing data.  A patented WeatherNet data transfer engine helps provide accelerated delivery of content across satellite and wireless platforms. Additionally, a “Content Wizard” personalizes WeatherNet’s library to the specific weather, ocean and fishing interests of the individual user. WeatherNet costs $99 per year plus downloads, and each downloaded file costs, on average, between 10 cents and $1, according to Thomassen.

The third OCENS offering is GRIB Explorer for iPad. This app allows you to download GRIB weather files via the Internet and satellite phones that support Wi-Fi connectivity. This app is $14.99 in the Apple app store and service can be purchased as prepaid unlimited plans, which can be as low as $15 per month. 

“There are no limitations to our service other than the limitation that may be imposed by your particular satellite device,” said Thomassen. SpotCast service is available worldwide and WeatherNet includes data worldwide and is accessible worldwide.

He explained that the SpotCast service requires the user to send their position to the server via an SMS message from the device and then returns an SMS weather report based on that location. “WeatherNet is a service that includes a client software for selecting the weather data you wish. Once you have selected the files that you want, you then click the download button to access the company servers and download the data directly to your computer via any Internet connection,” he said.

Thomassen said SpotCast is the only automated service available for delivering text weather information to users of inReach, Iridium and Inmarsat devices. By comparison, WeatherNet is designed primarily to work efficiently and cost-effectively over satellite phones and helps to keep airtime costs low. 

Another recent entrant to the field comes from Applied Weather Technology Inc. (AWT), a provider of shore-based ship route advisory services, onboard voyage management systems and fleet management systems. AWT has partnered with KVH Industries Inc., a provider of in-motion satellite TV and communications systems, to deliver AWT’s BonVoyage System (BVS) high-resolution weather data via the KVH IP-MobileCast FORECASTlink service.

AWT said the data will be updated up to four times per day to help ships optimize voyage planning and safety.

The BVS 7 “voyage optimization system” provides onboard and around-the-clock weather-routing information. KVH’s IP-MobileCast content delivery service will provide captains with access to BVS 7’s global, high-resolution data for wind, waves, visibility and currents with tidal streams, as well as detailed port vicinity forecasts, updated pirate attack reports and rogue wave forecasts.

KVH’s IP-MobileCast service utilizes multicasting technology to deliver large amounts of content to many ships at once, overcoming the satellite communications costs typically charged to deliver files for individual use. The new service is notable for technological advancements that enable the content to be delivered over the top of KVH’s mini-VSAT Broadband network, while ensuring that the multicasting transmission does not affect the vessel’s mini-VSAT Broadband onboard data speed.

KVH’s IP-MobileCast service displays high-resolution weather and operational data for a ship’s trackline in the North Atlantic.

Courtesy KVH

As a policy, AWT says it doesn’t publish the pricing on its software license and weather data subscription. The KVH IP-MobileCast weather data delivery fee is a flat $50 per month per ship, said Robert Hopkins Jr., director, IP-MobileCast services at KVH Industries. “This fee is paid in lieu of the airtime transmission costs that a ship without KVH IP-MobileCast would pay, which can easily range as high as $300 per month,” he said. The geographic coverage is a plus because, he notes, AWT’s weather services “are global in nature,” and so is KVH’s satcom coverage and “IP-MobileCast operates in all meteorological conditions.”

The actual delivery of content with the IP-MobileCast service takes place over KVH’s mini-VSAT Broadband service. “Not only is the data delivery automated, but BVS is designed to recognize when a new forecast has arrived and to open and render it in the background for immediate use by officers onboard,” Hopkins added.

Finally, the familiar satellite radio service, Sirius, offers XM WX Satellite Weather. Targeted at both recreational and commercial vessels, the service provides continuously updated graphical weather information, which can be integrated into chart plotters, portable units and marinized PCs. The services includes NEXRAD radar, lightning, satellite imagery, buoy data, sea surface temperatures and even FishBytes fish location data.

Up to 30 data services for maritime use are available through customized marine subscription packages. The top-of-the-line Master Mariner package has a subscription fee of $49.99 per month.

With so much variety and so many vendors, selecting the right service can require effort. Radio expert Joel R. Hallas, a contributing editor at QST magazine, said a key distinction among services relates to the form of transmission system employed. For example, he said satellite-based systems may have somewhat different geographic coverage areas, likely specified in their literature. “If they are received by separate onboard antennas, they will likely have different aiming arrangements, and depending on the antenna beam width, may be more susceptible to fading from rolling and pitching,” he noted.

Indeed, all forms of “wireless” can be susceptible to varying degrees of reception problems caused by weather, distance from the transmitting source, solar activity and other factors. The buyer needs to research carefully and understand whether what they are getting will match their needs.

Of course, traditional and less automated services are available. For example, Commanders’ Weather is a private forecasting service that provides detailed marine weather forecasts with specialized routing for all types of sailing and motor yachts, as well as vessels of Blount Cruise Lines.

Keith Wagner, director of maritime operations at Weather Routing Inc. (WRI), said there are advantages to both “human” and automated forecasting products. In addition to custom forecasting products, his firm offers Dolphin Fleet Management, which Wagner said is comparable to BVS — as well as SeaWeather Online Weather Service.

Dolphin Fleet Management’s website is an interactive program that monitors weather and oceanographic conditions. It is available 24/7 from any device with Internet connection. In addition to weather charts and oceanographic data, Dolphin allows the mariner to monitor the performance and efficiency of a fleet with speed and consumption analysis reports and other information summarized in the administrative section.

The company’s website, SeaWeather.net, offers weather information, with no special equipment required. “We pride ourselves on offering a combination of technology and human meteorologists. It is up to our clients to decide what they need,” he explained.

Mariners need to calculate how to balance cost, complexity and other factors against the value of having accurate, up-to-the minute weather information.

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