Systems onboard modern naval vessels produce a massive amount of data. The concept behind Babcock’s iSupport360 is to process the data specific to each asset’s technical capabilities and usage in order to offer customers bespoke advice. This could include suggesting better maintenance regimes and technical adjustments that can make platforms more reliable in service, and could even inform training regimes and what spares vessels carry.

“The iSupport concept brings together things that Babcock is really good at, optimising maintenance regimes for the platform so that they maximise availability and lower cost,” explains Babcock International chief executive for marine John Howie.

“We tie that together with our expertise in inventory optimisation to make sure they’ve got the right spares carried with them at sea and onshore, and helping them with the way they train operators and maintainers so that they understand how to maintain the things that statistically are most likely to break. We support that with a worldwide network of waterfront support in locations where we can provide direct support to the customer in a secure environment.”

How iSupport 360 works in practice

Programme director for iSupport Andy Burch tells us more about the platform’s capabilities and applications.

“We’ve run some really interesting trials with the Royal Navy on one particular platform,” he explains. “iSupport gives you the ability to say to the customer, you’re going to deploy the ship for nine months; statistically the following pieces of equipment are going to fail while you’re on deployment. Would you like us to replace them now, do you want us to give you the skills to allow you to maintain them when they fail? Or would you like us to arrange one of our overseas partners at their own locations to do the maintenance for you, dependent on where in the world you are?

“So we can offer the customer some options rather than just saying ‘we’ll wave you off, then when your ship breaks we’ll get some people onto a plane to fix it’.”

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While it makes use of the latest digital technology, iSupport360 can also integrate with older naval assets that were built in the pre-digital era.

“One of the key differentiators of what Babcock can offer is for assets that weren’t designed in a technological age,” Burch says. “We’re able to apply our technology to those, retrospectively integrating them into this digital solution. We work with newer assets where data and digital is amazing, but also with these older ships – Type 23s and so on – and we’re able to retrospectively bring them into this type of programme.”

Babcock International managing director for technology Jon Hall concludes that Babcock’s experience of managing its own assets gives the company a unique insight into how best to support its customer base.

“We’re operators of assets and networks ourselves including a big aircraft fleet – helicopters and fixed-wing – and we operate communications networks,” he says. “So we’ve got a good degree of understanding of what it’s like for international navies to run their big fleets of assets; ships, submarines and specialist equipment. We think of it like they do, and help them make better decisions, which is a huge amount of what iSupport technology was ultimately about; working with our customer to make better decisions.”

The iFrigate tool was tested on the HMS Sutherland. Credits: Babcock

Babcock’s iFrigate ship intelligence system

Part of the iSupport360 suite of business applications, Babcock’s iFrigate is designed to ‘digitally enable in-service support’.

Building on knowledge from systems developed to support the Type 23’s extended life cycle, iFrigate works as an operational support tool for the vessel it is installed on, measuring in real-time what the ship is doing. The aim is to reduce through-life costs and improve availability and readiness.

The tool, tested on the HMS Sutherland, lowers through-life cost by predicting maintenance requirements and giving engineers instant access to the data they need to maintain a steady ship.

Babcock’s engineering director for warships Ian Cowper said: “This at-sea predictive analysis of equipment is the first trial of its kind for the Royal Navy and brings together Babcock’s engineering know-how, technology provision, systems integration and through-life support experience.

The system was trialled on-board the HMS Sutherland for six months, using a suite of sensors and systems developed under the iSupport umbrella. The data collected was fed back to an onboard analytics hub as well as to Babcock’s engineers via a secure connection, giving both land-based and at-sea support teams a fuller picture of the operational state of the frigate.

The overarching mission behind iSupport and iFrigate is to ‘predict the future maintenance requirements of some of the most sophisticated equipment on the planet’, which is becoming a priority for a lot of naval forces, not just the UK. As the Royal Navy’s fleet has shrunk over the years, keeping ships at sea longer will be a key factor in maintaining its presence on the world stage.

Navy Command trial sponsor Captain Matt Bolton echoed this saying: “The Connected Platform trial is in direct support of the Royal Navy’s Maritime Support Information Exploitation (MarSIX) strategy and is helping to deliver against the Naval Engineering Strategy which is seeking to enable, empower and equip the Royal Navy maintainer.”

Cowper added: “By enabling enhanced decision support and optimising planning, it will ultimately improve the availability of the asset, reduce maintenance costs and safety risks, and equip Royal Navy personnel to make informed real-time maintenance decisions at a systems level.”

Going forward, iFrigate is set to become an integral part of the Royal Navy’s Type 31 frigate programme, as Babcock plans to embed the system into its winning design for the ship. By building data analytics and smart maintenance into future ship designs on a fundamental level, the iSupport360 platform aims to create a step-change in how navies look at their vessels.