Cyber-safe radio waves challenge satellite connections

Hailing from the University of Oulu, KNL Networks aims to become a leading communications service provider for the maritime industry. The company came up with the idea of harnessing high-frequency radio waves for long-distance digital communications. The HF data network offers a safer and more affordable alternative to satellite communications.

A self-steering, unmanned tanker is hijacked over the data network with catastrophic results. Sounds like a James Bond film!

However, this imaginative scenario is already a possibility, and preparations should be made for it. A developer of data communications for the maritime industry, Oulu-based KNL Networks (also known as Kyynel) is aware of this. The company was founded at the University of Oulu in 2011, and its partners include manufacturers of unmanned test ships.

Cyber security is a key selling point for KNL and is linked with the company’s main product, a high-frequency (HF) data network. Operating on high-frequency radio waves in the range of 3−30 MHz, the network is separate from other data communications infrastructure and, therefore as a rule, safe.

“An HF network only needs electricity in order to work, and our system also includes features promoting security, such as encryption,” says Teemu Vanninen, one of the three founders of KNL.

 Operational reliability is improved by the fact that each user’s device works as both a receiver and a base station. If one base station is lost, others will make up for it.

“Communications satellites are occasionally unavailable and also easy to interfere with. By contrast, interfering with our system is difficult: The HF range is full of interference, so it has been necessary to design the system such that it withstands interference.”

Cyber security has brought KNL customers from the security and defence sector. Another branch of business is sea trade, since a long-distance HF network is not only safer but also cheaper than a satellite connection.

“While a communication satellite is an artificial signal reflector, in the HF range the signal is reflected back free of charge by the ionosphere, a region of the upper atmosphere,” Vanninen explains.

“The need for data communications at sea keeps increasing, and satellite capacity is running out. What’s more, satellite connections don’t work high up in the north, since there are not enough paying customers to make it worthwhile to extend satellite coverage there.”

The need for an HF data network is increasing, particularly on northern seas. In order for the HF network to work, the ship must have a KNL radio and antenna. Pictured on the left is a whip antenna just erected by KNL Networks technicians (photo by KNL Networks).

Quicker innovation through co-operation with the university

The possibility of using high frequencies instead of satellite connections presented itself to Vanninen, Matti Raustia and Toni Lindén when they worked as researchers at the University of Oulu’s Centre for Wireless Communications (CWC).

“Nothing had happened to HF technology since the 1960s, so we set out to modernise it. We had many problems to solve. The reflection of the signal from the atmosphere was basic technology as such, but the speed of the connection had to be increased. And whereas satellites strengthen signals, the ionosphere distorts them,” Vanninen says.

Even though the HF skills came from outside the university, particularly from Lindén, who has a background as a radio amateur and commissioned officer, the three men have benefited from their experience at the CWC.

“We were able to apply many of the things we had learned. At the CWC, we studied software-defined and cognitive radios, for example. In a software-defined radio, as many functions as possible are implemented by means of software. This is a basic prerequisite for what we are doing now. A cognitive radio, on the other hand, means for us that KNL’s radio selects the best connection method at each time, avoiding other HF communication and interference.”

The University of Oulu also plays a role in the company’s current development work.

“We have commissioned design work at the CWC regarding signal processing, for example, and the co-operation still continues. The university helps us innovate more quickly than what we would otherwise be capable of. For the time being, we do not commission long-term research, since the company needs results that can be applied quickly,” Vanninen says, praising the IT ecosystem in Oulu, which includes the university and local companies alike.

“Without this, we would not be able to design and manufacture our system.”

E-mails over long distances, access to the Internet near the coast

KNL’s system includes not only the data network but also the required radio device and its antenna. The HF data network, i.e. the Global service, has since been complemented with the Broadband service, which is based on a mobile network.

“The HF technology offers very long-distance connections with limited bandwidth, whereas the mobile network provides higher capacity closer to the coast,” Vanninen says. The company has set its sights on a hybrid solution whereby different networks are seamlessly integrated depending on the customer’s location.

According to Vanninen, the HF network is sufficient for “operative” maritime use, such as e-mails and attachments, and has a range of at least 10,000 kilometres. The Broadband service has an Internet-level capacity but a range of a few dozen kilometres, depending on antenna height. This signal is not reflected from the ionosphere.

“We are now developing technology to extend the mobile network coverage further out to sea. There are a number of innovations behind this, but I won’t describe these in detail yet.”

One must be wary of competitors, even though Vanninen does not know of any similar maritime communications service providers. KNL’s innovations are protected by patents, and the devices are difficult to copy. The company’s position as a pioneer is also secured by its own global network.

“At the beginning, we needed to get customers in our network in order for there to be one. We are already past this chicken-and-egg phase. Our goal is to be a leading player in maritime digitalisation. There are about 80,000 merchant ships in the world, all potential customers.”

Text: Jarno Mällinen

Main photo: CTIO Teemu Vanninen (left) and CEO Toni Lindén of KNL Networks are proud of the HF radio developed by their company, operating in a high-frequency data network. The company’s product development and head office are located in Oulu, Finland. It has sales offices in Helsinki, Oslo and London and retailers in Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (photo by Juha Sarkkinen).

Last updated: 6.9.2018