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Key facts

  • Maritime Executive wanted to learn more about the AST Group
  • Covers how the AST Group applies satellite technology to solve operational problems

25.05.22

Satcom pioneer Darling founded the AST Group to "apply satellite technology to solve operational problems." Since then, the company's innovative and often bespoke solutions have benefited customers for 30 years.

 

Tell us about yourself - your background and education.

I grew up and went to school in the fishing port of Lowestoft on the east coast of England and earned a Business Degree in Sheffield. I then wanted to see the world, as many as that time did, so I worked offshore as a roustabout for Santa Fe Drilling on a three-legged jack-up the Britannia, and then bought a motor bike and drove across the U.S., stopping to work on a cruise ship operating out of New Orleans. I eventually reached Australia where I worked in an iron ore mine maintaining 200-ton trucks. 


Wow, that's quite a record!

Yes, the early experience of working in the real world encouraged me to do more, especially as I came back from my trip with more money that I started with!


Okay, so what happened next?

In the early 1970s offshore gas was starting to be discovered and developed in the southern North Sea, and I agreed to temporarily join my father's new company, Gardline Shipping Ltd., as an office assistant. Gardline was conducting depth and location surveys for drilling companies using some recently retired Norwegian coastal vessels. The business grew, and so did my role, and I began travelling extensively in Europe first and the Africa and the Far East in search of new business. 

I secured the first contracts for the company in many countries, including: Norway, Nigeria, Angola, Somalia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. Eventually, and after some real ups and downs, we owned and operated 15 ocean-going-survey ships. Work locations varied from the poles to the tropics and included oil and gas exploration, trans-ocean telephone cable surveys, location of lost aircraft and government patrol vessel operations.

The "temporary" secondment at my father's company lasted 40 years! I wound up as Group Chairman before the company was sold in 2017. 


Meanwhile, you had already founded AST in 1992. How did that come about? Had satellite technology even come into existence back then?

Thirty years ago, Inmarsat A was just starting with voice only, and Inmarsat C was 'coming soon'. There was no fax and no Internet, only radio telex. We had vessel in West Africa that had started a return journey to Europe, but a new contract required the vessel to go back. Radio comms were poor, and we lost several ship's days in the process, so we decided to buy a Magnavox Inmarsat A. It was costly and difficult to use, and we were invoiced in SDRs (special drawings rights), a form of currency issued by the International Monetary Fund, which made payments unnecessarily difficult.

As a confused and frustrated user, it occurred to me that I was probably not alone, and hence the idea of applying satellite technology to solve operational problems was born, leading to the name "Applied Satellite Technology" - AST for short. I was confident satellite communications or satcoms would grow, and it turned out to be a correct assumption. 

So, I quit my full-time job with Gardline and rented an industrial unit in Norwich with one technician and a part-time secretary, and that's how it all began. 


Where is the company based today? Are there other offices in different countries? How many employees are there?

AST is based in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, U.K. and has two other U.K. offices. We have about 160 employees and additional offices in the U.S., Singapore, and Australia.


AST describes itself as a "leading global innovator in satellite communications solutions". For us non-technical types, what does that mean? What do satcom providers like AST actually do for clients?

The innovation part comes from two key qualities. First is our knowledge of customer requirements, which enables us to test and bring the market new services and solutions ahead of the competition and empower our customers with best-in-class, future-proof solutions. Second is our ability to integrate various communications systems, establish VPNs (virtual private networks) and customer-specific networks, and manage data. That's really at the core of our innovation.

Integration is important for a ship where there will be, for example, GSM, VSAT, and L-band comms as well as a LAN for the crew. How does all that plug together so the service fits the needs of the ship's operations? Establishing VPNs and connections to global offices with appropriate cybersecurity is not an "off the shelf" deliverable and varies depending on the customer's needs. And that's where we come in, and why so many of our solutions are bespoke and one-of-a-kind. 

Data management is necessary for all kinds of reasons, starting with reporting and alerting for comms overage or prioritization. We manage each element to provide customers with the package best-suited to their needs. 


Okay, tell us about some of those solutions - INTEGRA, IRIS, iRAMS, the My AST portal.

INTEGRA is our managed global point-of-presence network. INTEGRA Control is a software that allows users to manage IP traffic in real time to prioritize bandwidth usage and ease congestion. By maximizing performance for business-critical applications, it lowers costs and helps eliminate unwanted traffic that can represent up to 20 percent of all IP traffic. 

IRIS is a software product that connects and manages different data streams including location-based services. IRAMS is a remote asset-management package for ships, connecting engines and generators and other devices and displaying a range of data for immediate response via alerts or reviews of comparative performance. The My AST portal is the main gateway for customers to manage their satellite connections and services including INTEGRA Control. It's a constantly evolving, user-friendly portal.


We saw recently that AST is partnering with a company called OneWeb to offer a new suite of services to the maritime industry. Tell us about that. Are partnerships an important part of AST's business strategy?

OneWeb is building a new LEO (Low Earth Orbit) constellation with a 10-fold increase in speed over what is commonly available today. OneWeb's ability to provide fibre-like connectivity anywhere in the world is a real game-change and means what we are used to at home or in the office will be available anywhere. It's 648 next-generation satellites in low earth orbit shrink the world. We're excited by what is the first of the new-generation constellations that is targeting the maritime market in particular. It's due for commercial launch in the first quarter of 2023.

In addition to increased speed and low latency, OneWeb's system will provide discrete communications channels for ships' business VOIP, system monitoring, crew use and third-party use. This fits exactly with AST's tailored business solution approach to providing a package of connectivity for the client's total business needs. 

Partnerships and close relationships with key providers like OneWeb are crucial to our ability to provide what is not just new but is also reliable and best-in-class. 


How has COVID affected business? What changes did you have to make in operations and procedures? Are things getting back to normal now?

COVID was a challenge, and the AST team responded very positively to working from home and managing the difficulties of freight delays, travel restrictions and installations in remote ports. As with many companies, the use of Microsoft Teams and ZOOM increased and has become a normal addition to how we and others conduct business.

Business slowed for everyone as it made sense for customers to delay upgrades and installations during a pandemic. However, business is getting back to normal with appropriate procedures to keep safe, and we are broadly optimistic for the future. New technologies such as OneWeb will be a catalyst for growth in the next two years. 


What makes AST different?

AST is different because of our attention to the details of customers' needs. We are system-agnostic and independent, so we're not driven by a particular provider. With 30 years' experience and growing originally from the offshore business, we know how important reliable communications are at sea and the vital support necessary when changes are required, or problems need to be solved. All providers may say this, but we back it up, and AST's service ethos is our best business driver. Being reliable, enthusiastic and flexible means a great deal to our customers.


Where does satcom technology go from here?

New products in our world are essentially software enablers, better use of data controls, improved ability to increase or decrease bandwidth and integration of communication systems via least-cost routing. For example, the comparison of data from dual main engines can determine relative performance and, if parameters differ markedly, then the reason can be investigated to save fuel or prevent failure. For wind farm construction, AST can turn on and off remote generators used in construction, thereby optimizing usage and lowering costs. For sensors, alerts can be provided when critical levels are reached so that appropriate action can be taken. 


What excites you most about your job?

The challenges of applying technology to what is a global market and then achieving success with satisfied customers. 

 

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I am a pretend farmer. I like my tractor and solving the associated practical problems.


Any final message for our readers?

My final message is that technology is a means to an end and must be easy to use, especially for those in remote locations. All involved should consider the user at sea in a storm or the cost of non-compliance if data is corrupted. Reliability is rule one.
 

Wherever you are, whatever your remote connectivity requirements, AST has a solution. To discuss how we can take you further with one of the friendly team call +44 (0)1493 440 011 or email info@theastgroup.com

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