The assumption is always that new technology will replace the old, but breakthrough tech can also supercharge stuff we thought was obsolete.
The consensus of people I met at Posidonia this year was that it all felt a bit tired. There wasn’t anything new or particularly exciting. Maybe that was partly because the journalists and media kept saying that Posidonia is all about ship owners inking big newbuild deals with yards, and glorious parties overlooking the Med.
Well, if that is the zenith of shipping’s expectations for an exhibition then maybe you should have felt disappointed. But for me Posidonia was really quite exciting for a couple of reasons, and a conversation about KNL Networks was one of them.
Disruptive innovation has almost become shorthand for technology innovation, and more specifically brand new technologies. Airbnb, Uber and even Facebook would not have been without scalable cloud platforms, algorithms, analytics and mobile connectivity. As a result we tend to find start-ups looking for the next technology advance and building a customer/value/business proposition around it to get out ahead of the competition.
But as I always say, the technology can enable a competitive advantage, but it isn’t the advantage in and of itself. You need to step back and understand what’s driving all this technology development, and that’s the underlying exponential growth of computing power—first described by Gordon Moore of IBM—which has become Moore’s Law.
Adopting that wider view it becomes clearer that just concentrating on where new technology is going is too narrow. Because these staggering advances in computing power don’t just mean new things are possible. It means that old things could now do things they weren’t capable of in the past. Last issue we featured Constantine Komodromos, CEO of start-up VesselBot, the online chartering platform He made the point that just because the famous flop with similar ambition—OpenSeas—didn’t work in the past, didn’t mean the idea couldn’t work now.
I agree, and it’s something organisations keen to embrace disruption can forget. The huge strength of the exponential technology growth happening now is the ability of organisations and disruptors to build on the platforms which already exist.
Rather than going back to the drawing board you leverage the technology advances out there and build your own on top of it. Because, as I say, it isn’t the technology which is the advantage, it’s the strength and depth of the idea and the excellence of its execution.
How excellent the execution on KNL Network’s part will end up being I don’t know, but the strength and depth of the idea really is looking good so far. What I like most about it is its apparent simplicity. Because that’s fast becoming the real prize in the digital world.
This isn’t just HF radio. This is CNHF radio, which stands for Cognitive Networked High Frequency. According to KNL it’s “the most advanced radio device manufactured so far in the history of mankind.” How’s that for a Big Hairy Audacious Goal? Man, I like these guys.
KNL Networks are doing HF radio. I’ll let you absorb that for a moment. Then wonder what a journal which charts exponential technology-growth and talks about algorithms and high-throughput satellites and autonomous ships is doing soiling its pages with a technology that even the most crusty Master Mariner will know and probably love, and which a class of ten-year-olds with the requisite equipment could bodge together adequately enough to broadcast a couple of rude words to the staff room.
But this isn’t just HF radio. This is CNHF radio, which stands for Cognitive Networked High Frequency, and according to KNL it is “the most advanced radio device manufactured so far in the history of mankind.” How’s that for a Big Hairy Audacious Goal? Man, I like these guys.
And it seems I’m not the only one. “We like companies that are somewhat “far out”, with the potential to change industries,” says Investure who, together with Butterfly Ventures, led the current EUR 2 million funding round which should enable KNL to recruit new talent and speed up the scaling and commercialisation of its products. “We could not be more excited to be a part of the Kyynel story.”
So who are they? It’s a Finnish start-up which formed in 2011 having spun out of the University of Oulu. Originally called Kyynel, the company is named after a Finnish lightweight, portable, long-range patrol radio called the Kyynel ‘Tear’ which was developed for World War II. At the time it was the most advanced high frequency radio in the world, so it’s no surprise that KNL are talking in terms of military-grade security.
According to Toni Linden, CEO of KNL Networks, they soon realised that their system design was so “out there” that they needed a prototype. Then during the R&D phase they realised that they also needed services and a network.
Having been in stealth mode for four years the result is a new wireless communications system able to provide connection anywhere in the world, and that includes at sea. Even the Arctic. And according to its developers it is also “the only known alternative to satellite communication.”
Oh, and if that isn’t doing it for you, how about the fact that it can be yours—Mr. deep-pockets-short-arms ship operator—for $300/month.
Now that I have your full attention, let’s take a look at what this can deliver. For a start you can use it for file updates, Internet of Things (IoT) data, instant messaging, email communications, sensor data, and even mission-critical, secure communications.
Thanks to the dual-technology combining traditional HF terrestrial radio with the latest cognitive and digital software radio tech, it also delivers improved coverage, including in that polar region I mentioned, and across a link distance of up to 10,000km. The innovation continues with the use of the HF spectrum as a gateway to the IP network. The system is completely digital with built-in cellular, WiFi and LAN-connections to provide IP connectivity to other networks.
What’s particularly interesting about KNL is that it relays information through different users of the MESH-radio network. Here’s KNL explaining what that means. “The CNHF radio acts as a terminal or a base station, depending on the status and location of the user. When a user is lacking cellular or LAN connection, the radio operates as a terminal providing services to the user. While connected to the Internet or IP-network, the radio switches to base station mode for offering communication to other users as well, still maintaining a terminal role for the end user.”
That’s important because it means that each end user always has access to a dedicated link, unlike a satcom system where bandwidth is dynamically assigned and divided between users. “This enables an exceptional quality of service for most applications except very high quality video streaming,” say KNL.
If you’re involved in cyber security these days then I know your ears will have pricked up at the mention of a distributed network. With dependence leading to risk concentration of reliance on one service or network is becoming more of a vulnerability – read ‘Over-Exposed’ in our January 2016 Smart Ships issue for more on how that might affect insurance in the future. Considering the expense and complexity of satellite communications it’s perhaps understandable that we only have a few big network operators, but there is nervousness about that concentration of dependence in maritime.
There are those who believe that satellite communications may just be too vulnerable for the industry and its vessels to rely on its security in the future. The distributed nature of the KNL system—like the blockchain—could hold advantages here.
According to KNL’s CEO Linden, its system is substantially harder to tamper with as it doesn’t distinguish between other users of the system and interference. What makes it so robust is its ability to detect jamming or interference and automatically change data parameters to continue transmitting. It also rapidly synchronises at random points of the radio spectrum—which are truly random, and that’s a really hard thing to achieve—which increases the difficulty for would-be hackers. Speaking earlier this year Linden claimed that not even government organisations are ready to block this at the moment.
And just so that we’re clear, this service is already in operation. There are maritime customers using this today, and KNL has the capability to add hundreds of ships to the network. And the bigger that network gets, the more powerful it gets. You know, a bit like LinkedIn.
The plan is that their service will roll-out in two phases, the first offering built-in location tracking, email, chat and IP/file transfer. As the network grows and the spread and capacity of the MESH network improves new applications like VOIP and Internet browsing will come online.
Installing and operating the system sounds childishly easy. It’s a standard broadband HF antenna, and additional 3G cellular and GPS antennas, the radio and a plug. All the devices can be controlled, updated and managed remotely.
At the moment the system’s low bandwidth, which allows data rates of 700-153,000 bit/s, means video streaming isn’t a possibility, but when you look at the current maritime communications landscape and where we’re going, that’s a minor point.
Satellite may be the only game in town but it’s not without its drawbacks, from polar coverage to the footprints of the birds themselves, shared bandwidth, the complexity of the equipment and, yes, the price. KNL’s technology could indeed be highly disruptive.
The technology is inherently cheap, with coverage supplied by long-range high frequency channels operating at a fraction of the cost of satellite networks, and of course there aren’t any expensive satellites to maintain or operate either. Plus it would seem the product is both at least as secure as what’s on offer now, and probably considerably more so. Add in the assumption that it’s reliable and the fact that it’s globally available and always-on and, what’s not to like?
It isn’t just maritime that KNL is targeting, its customers are also in “industrial and government communications segments,” but in shipping and maritime, where the perceived cost and complexity of connectivity has acted as a brake on technology-adoption for so long; and where the Smart Ships of the future are going to rely not on crystal clear voice channels but data and plenty of it, this could be utterly game-changing.
In case you’re wondering how I came across KNL at Posidonia and you didn’t, it wasn’t because I happened upon them tucked away at the back of Hall 2—through the cloud of cigarette smoke billowing from the top floor of the stands where the smokers were squatting thinking no one would notice.
KNL weren’t there. Which just goes to underline the problem that shipping, and every other vertical market, is experiencing. Because in the old days any product, service or technology which had the capacity to transform your business or industry—for good or ill—you’d be pretty much guaranteed to find sitting on a lavish stand at one of your big trade shows. These days they can come from anywhere.
But you’ve still got a good chance of finding them here.
Images courtesy © Amblin/Universal Pictures/KNL networks
This article appeared in the July 2016 issue of Futurenautics.