Potential signal blockages from vessel superstructure
Need for flexibility based on the changing needs of the organization
Mercy Ships is an international development association set up in 1978 with a mission to eradicate diseases of poverty. The volunteer doctors and crew on its hospital ships provide free medical aid plus physical and moral support for people in countries ranked in the lower third of the World Health Organization’s Human Development Index.
Intellian has enjoyed a close working relationship with Mercy Ships since 2019 when an Intellian v240C C-band system was successfully deployed on board the floating hospital, Africa Mercy. This strong partnership has intensified with Mercy Ships’ purchase of dual 2.4m Intellian v240MT 2 antennas for its new vessel, Global Mercy.
“Historically, we had the antenna as a lease from another provider, but now that we’re moving forward and purpose-building our ship, we decided that we wanted to own our antennas and switch providers, based on the changing needs of the organization, the shifting requirements in the different countries we’re going to, if we need to upgrade, downgrade, switch from GEO to MEO or even LEO constellations, and so on,” says Jonathan Dyson, Director of Enterprise Infrastructure at Mercy Ships.
The largest civilian hospital ship in the world, Global Mercy will accommodate up to 950 people in port, including 641 volunteer crew members, and its six operating theatres and hospital wards are designed to manage 200 patients at a time. The company estimates that the vessel will more than double Mercy Ships’ current surgical and training capacity. By the time it has seen out its anticipated 50-year working lifespan, more than 150,000 lives will have been improved and saved by the surgeries carried out on its purpose-built hospital decks.
The increasing bandwidth demands by Mercy Ships and the changing needs of the organization resulted in a decision to update the antenna system on board Africa Mercy as Mercy Ships’ connectivity strategy is now to forge ahead with a future-proof VSAT solution.
The v240C system on board the Africa Mercy has now been updated to an Intellian v240M 2 dual-band, multi-orbit VSAT system using a connectivity solution from SES, “which has been our provider of choice in scoping out the antennas for the Global Mercy,” Dyson comments. Meanwhile, the solution Mercy Ships has chosen for Global Mercy is an orbit-agnostic, dual v240MT 2 system, integrated and controlled by Intellian’s Intelligent Mediators, which guarantee always-on connectivity by switching between antennas should the vessel’s superstructure ever block a satellite signal.
However, as with so many businesses worldwide, the coronavirus pandemic represented a devastating setback for Mercy Ships’ humanitarian activities. Not least of the challenges posed by lockdown restrictions were a series of logistical and circumstantial difficulties in physically installing the Intellian hardware at the new vessel’s shipyard in China, as Jonathan Dyson, Director of Enterprise Infrastructure at Mercy Ships, recalls.
“We needed letters [of permission] from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in China, but then all of a sudden we couldn’t get these letters; how were we going to get people there?”
Faced with a complicated tangle of bureaucratic barriers, the installation of these antennas was nevertheless completed a few weeks ago thanks to a concerted team effort, as Dyson recalls. “Intellian and SES worked well together to come up with a plan. It was outside of the process, but it was great to be able to lean on their organization and have a team from Shanghai who came down to build it, to put everything together and check it, and make sure that all the hardware was there when we couldn’t get anybody there; that was just fantastic. Intellian’s customer service has been seamless from our perspective.”
Mercy Ships’ increased investment in Intellian hardware directly reflects its operational growth and the changing landscape of connectivity, as Dave Shwadlenak, VP of IT, Mercy Ships, explains. “As Mercy Ships has matured more and more, we’ve had an increased need not to have on-premise servers and applications, and that’s driving a lot of what we do technology-wise. In addition, our technology stack has become so broad, and so much is in the cloud these days, that having data centers on board the ships would be problematic for us.”
Immediate ship-shore communications and data transfer
Future-proof compatibility with forthcoming MEO and LEO networks
“One of the reasons for the upgrade and moving towards more bandwidth is the ability to communicate dynamically and immediately with our ships,” Shwadlenak points out. “We transfer a lot of data back and forth: many of our applications are in the cloud, so it’s important to be able to access this. The satellite is our lifeblood, our mainstay, the one thing upon which we always rely. The work we do in the hospital, and for that matter everything that we do aboard, is centralized here at the ISC. Most of our servers are here or in the cloud, so this communication piece has become critical for us: and it’s only by upgrading bandwidth that we’re able to move to that technology.”
Global Mercy will enter service in sub-Saharan Africa in 2022. In addition to vital medical support and reinforcement, it will also host mentoring and training programs for local health professionals. Reliable satellite connectivity will enable the smooth running of the day-to-day business, including essential communications with the sponsors and donors whose input is key to Mercy Ships’ ongoing ambitions. It will also allow teleconferencing applications such as capacity building and remote training, image sharing, diagnostic dialogues with specialists situated in all parts of the globe, and all-important crew welfare circumstances such as social media interactions and web browsing during staff downtime.
Both Dave Shwadlenak and Jonathan Dyson are unstinting in their praise for Intellian. “I’ve been very, very happy with them,” Shwadlenak emphasizes. “Frankly, they’ve been marvelous in terms of working with us and helping us through many of the pitfalls we had. Especially in China, it was tremendous what they did there. There’s not enough I can say about what they’ve done with us: it’s been a very pleasurable experience.”
“I’ve worked with many different service providers,” Dyson adds, “and all of them recommended Intellian hardware. All of them. To me, that speaks volumes about the quality of the equipment, the hardware, the products that Intellian provides.”