How ICT can assist maritime search and rescue operations

Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa has led to a significant movement of people. Each week, thousands of people are risking their lives to reach Europe by attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. So far and estimated number of 3,000 people have already drowned this year. Save the Children and other NGOs have launched ships to rescue the many people who put to sea in unseaworthy boats. On board the rescue ships, the NGOs take care of immediate medical needs, provide food and water and transport the rescued people to a safe port in Europe where they will be looked after by the authorities.  

Technology has a very important role in support Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. Being on a ship has a lot of similarities to working in a remote field site ashore. Similar technologies are used, but there are also technologies used in such an operation which are unique to the marine environment. In this article, we will explore the technologies used to support SAR operations.

Operational overview
The movement of people from Turkey to Greece has significantly reduced due to the deal reached between the EU and the Turkish Government. Further west, the situation is very different as people leave the shores of Libya to attempt the long and treacherous journey to the Italy, Malta and other destinations. Save the Children, MOAS, MSF and other NGOs are running search and rescue ships under the coordination of the Italian Coastguard. This operation has become even more necessary as people traffickers are sending boats to sea of ever decreasing quality. In some cases boats are being sent with just about enough fuel to reach the areas where rescue ships operate.  

 The boats are often overloaded which means that getting people off them is dangerous and requires a lot of communication with the people on board in advance of rescue. NGOs are using cultural mediators who have the language skills to explain to people how to leave the boat safely. The main danger is capsize of the boat caused by all people on board rushing to the same side of the boat to be rescued.

It is now the peak season for migration as the sea is fairly calm. But rescue is still needed when weather conditions deteriorate as the boats continue to put to sea. The traffickers just sell off tickets at half price. People are taking huge risks as the likelihood of people coming to harm increases significantly in bad weather.  

Airborne Surveillance
moas_droneUnmanned Airborne Vehicles (UAVs) are being used by MOAS. In humanitarian work, we try to avoid the term “Drones” as military drones have been used in many places to fight wars. The use of UAVs is well established in disaster response where small battery powered UAVs are used to gather aerial images.

MOAS has partnered with Schiebel and have two long range UAVs on the rescue ship. These UAVs are miniature helicopters with powerful engines running on aviation fuel. They are controlled from a ops room on the ship by trained pilots.

When on deployment, these UAVs will cover a large area of up to 100 miles from the ship. From the on-board cameras, boats needing rescue can be identified and locations shared with the Coastguard. Depending on the location of SAR ships, the nearest ship will be tasked to conduct a rescue. This could be the MOAS ship if it was the nearest.

Tracking the SAR FleetaisOn land, safety and security managers are often keen to know the whereabouts of vehicles on the road in places where the situation is insecure.  In maritime operations, there are also security risks to ships from threats such as piracy. There have been incidents reported by some  ships and as a result, most organizations involved in the effort have developed procedures to deal with such situations.  

Tracking the locations of ships is very easy and does not require much up-front investment in technology as any ship over 300 tons which operates outside of national waters is required to carry the Automatic Identification System (AIS) under the IMO SOLAS regulations. This requirement was introduced in 2002 and has been extended in some countries to cover national coastal and inland waters.  

AIS operates on the VHF radio frequency at a maximum power of 12.5W. Each ship transmits its location, speed, heading, identity and other information about the ship. The original intention of AIS was for collision avoidance (supplementing RADAR which displayed just displayed range and bearing of objects which reflected a signal). As the system was designed for the purposes of collision avoidance, the system was never intended by the IMO to be a long range tracking service. However long range tracking has evolved thanks for private sector and the internet .

AIS signals are in the public domain. It’s very easy to buy an AIS receiver for $100 and with some ingenuity, the data can be displayed on a google map. Some hobbyist have demonstrated this though setting up AIS websites which display live data from ships at sea. John Ambler created a google map for the busy waters surrounding the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England (see http://www.john-ambler.com/ais/google.html).

Commercial AIS tracking websites such as MarineTraffic.com have appeared and brings together a global network of people operating AIS receivers. Many of these sites are free to view, but for a fee, there are more advanced functions available. In recent years, low orbiting satellites have been equipped with AIS receivers so that ships can be located outside of the areas covered by the land based AIS stations. The AIS websites will normally charge a fee to access the Satellite AIS. As satellite AIS is evolving, there can be significant gaps of up to 8 hours between position reports.

Another benefit of using the “paid for” services is that organizations can mark out areas on the map so that operations can be informed about key events such as when a ship leaves port, arrives at its destination or enters into a specific area. In some operations, SAR ships will be required to keep a certain distance from the coast and only allowed to enter a specific area to conduct a rescue. Alerts can be set up to let operations staff know when such areas are entered.

Emergency & routine communicationsgmdss
Many NGOs have safety and security policies which require there to be at least two separate modes of communication. On land, this may include radio and satellite communications. Local mobile networks are sometimes included if they are considered to be stable enough. The main purpose of such policies is to enable teams to be able to call for help from specific trusted contacts. As NGOs take to the sea and conduct SAR operations, the need to reach out for help when the rescue ship itself encounters a problem is covered under the various laws and standards which regulates ships (flag state & IMO).

All commercial ships deploying to sea are required to carry equipment which complies with the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). For many years, ships have been equipped with various types of radio. In the late 1970’s the worlds very first commercial satellite communications network INMARSAT was introduced to shipping and later on was adopted by NGOs and other sectors working ashore. The complex array of radio and satellite communications was managed by the ships radio officer.

In the 1990s. GMDSS was launched and became a game changer. As a new standard, GMDSS integrated all modes of radio and satellite communications into a single control console where routine and/or distress messages could be sent easily at the push of a button. The design of GMDSS systems meant that all communications could be handed by the bridge crew thus making the role of the Radio Officer redundant.

There is a well-established system at sea where as soon as a distress is sent by any vessel, nearby ships are required to assist if they are able (and it’s safe to do so). Every part of the worlds ocean is covered by a capable rescue authority which coordinates a range of rescue assets ranging from helicopters to warships. Where NGOs commission ships for SAR operations, they should consider the safety and security aspect of communications as outsourced to the ship’s crew as the GMDS system on board will most likely exceeded any requirement stated in the NGO’s policy.

For routine communications, NGO teams will need their own ways to communicate with their operations people ashore. Mobile phone networks are fine for when the ship is alongside, but out at sea, satellite communications will be required for when the ship moves beyond mobile phone coverage which is typically limited to 10KM or less from the coast. Save the Children have set up Iridium for its communications on its ship as Iridium external antennas are Omni-directional. For on-board communications between the team, short range UHF radios are used which are set up on IMO frequencies designated for on-board use.

Internet accesskvhAt sea, access to the internet is just as important as it is on land.  Whilst in harbour, it’s easy to connect to internet services provided by mobile networks. Further offshore the internet needs to be provisioned through satellite services such as VSAT. On land, a VSAT dish is fixed to the ground and pointed at the satellite, shore based systems typically cost $4500. At sea, the ship is constantly moving which means more complex technology is required to keep the VSAT dish pointing at the satellite. If the dish is misaligned by anything greater than ½ degree, the signal is lost and internet fails.

Marine VSAT systems are much more expensive due to the technology involved. Typically the budget systems start out at $20,000 for the hardware. They tend not to track satellites very well in rough seas. If there is a high dependence on internet access, more robust and expensive systems costing as much as $40,000 will be needed. On top of this, there will be the monthly usage fees.

The technology is also quite expensive and complex to install. The larger systems need special consideration as the antennas and their protective domes  weigh a lot and installers need to work closely with the ship owners as these systems will have a minor effect on the overall ship’s stability.  

Save the Children  chartered a vessel which already had a VSAT installed. The KVH system is at the low end of the technology and limited to 1MB capacity which costs $4,000 a month to run. For the 12 crew on board, this is sufficient and the crew have been able to access online resources such as health information systems, email, conference calling and a tool used to collect information about the people rescued.  Many organizations are using tablets and Kobo software to collect anonymous information about the people rescued.  

Weather forecastingmet-office

Mariners are well trained in meteorology and its normal for ship crews to be able to access local weather information. As part of the GMDSS infrastructure, various coastal stations and coastguards broadcast weather forecasts several times a day. Weather information is also transmitted to GMDSS text based systems such as Navtex and Inmarsat C safety net. Generally these forecasts are limited to a 48 hours forecast window and covers a wide area.  

Save the Children is sourcing weather information the UK Met office. The forecast format provides a 5 day outlook. A fresh forecast is generated every 12 hours and sent directly to the ship by email. The forecast is for a specific location near to where rescues take place and gives the team information about predicted wind, wave and swell height. The format of the forecast was designed for the oil industry and includes wind data for a height of 100m above sea level – quite useful information for the MOAS UAV operators.

Good quality weather predictions could enhance the efficiency of the rescue operation. If sea conditions are predicted to worsen for a few days making it impossible to rescue, ships could use the downtime to return to port and replenish fuel etc.

Lessons learnt
​NGOs entering SAR operations may not have maritime experience at all, if they take the same approach to providing similar technology to what would be used on land, budget holders will be completely shocked at the complexities and costs of setting up the required technologies. It is really important that programme managers engage technical experts from the get go, preferably well before budgets are set. Technology at sea is a very specialist area which means that organizations may  need to look beyond their internal ICT teams if they do not have in house maritime expertise.

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Girls in ICT day – 28th April 2016

Today is “Girls in ICT Day” ICT recruiters will be missing out on some great talent as long as they continue to employ chaps. There needs to be a more balanced workforce. See link below for more:
https://www.etcluster.org/event/girls-ict-day.

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Great energy inventions

In the 1990’s Trevor Baylis a British inventor saw a TV program about the spread of AIDS in Africa. One of the ways to prevent the spread of AIDs and other diseases is through education and information using radio broadcasts. The dissemination of information over the airways requires the target audience to have radios. At the time, most radios needed mains power or batteries. Baylis recognised that access to electric would be a massive challenge and that another solution would be needed. baygen

Baylis immediately set to work and invented the first wind up radio which enabled the radio to be charged up by an internal dynamo operated by a hand crank.  He eventually went on to form Freeplay energy which is still operating today and still innovating new products.

In addition to radio receivers, Freeplay also produce a wide range of other products which are well suited to remote settings where electricity remains a challenge. The original wind up technology has been refined over the years and is more efficient. Freeplay has incorporated solar technology into their solutions which means that radios can be powered throughout the day without any need to turn the handle! I am pleased they have retained the concept as radios can still be used if they run out of charge during the night.

Over the years, I have seen similar products from other manufactures, but during a recent evaluations of Freeplay products, I was impressed by the quality of build. For remote locations, any technology must be built strong enough to withstand the harsh conditions and be reliable. This is really important as once the technology is shipped, it’s not easy to fly it back to the factory for a replacement.

 In this article, we will explore some of the Freeplay product and discover how they can add a lot of value to communities which are remote or affected by a crisis.

As an organization, Freeplay manufactures small portable products for families. The technology is targeted at a number of markets such as emergency preparedness, aid & development and any consumer who engages in outdoor activities such as camping.

Encore Radio
encoreThis radio is well suited for use in developing nations. The radio has been cleverly designed so that it can receive longer range broadcasts over two SW bands. For local broadcasts, the radio can receive AM and FM. I was also impressed with the built in recording function which allows the radio to record broadcasts and save them to memory cards in MP3 format via the built in card reader.

In addition to recording programs in MP3 format, these radios can be used in schools as a tool to enhance education. Any MP3 content can be played. Up to 125 audio books can be stored on a 32GB SD card!

Power for the radio and its two inbuilt bright LED lights are charged up from the crank handle at the rear or the small solar panel on the top. (A larger external solar panel is also included).

This is not the only radio made by Freeplay, there are others available which are designed for different uses such as emergency preparedness.

Energy Hub
hub
The Energy Hub is a small solar system designed for a small household. The kit comes with a controller and two lights (as pictured). An external solar panel can charge the battery up in 6 hours to full capacity. On a full charge, two bulbs on high setting will run for 8 hours. A single bulb on 50% setting will run for 32 hours.

The cables for the lights and panel are sufficiently long enough to allow for permanent installation in a small family hut.

LanternReliance Lantern
Over the years, I have seen a number of lanterns but this one really impresses me not just for the build quality, but for the overall design. Its built to withstand weather and shock and can provide light up to 45 hours on a single charge. It also has a built in Siren which is really useful in some applications.

The Lantern Library:  Good technology can cost money, and I have heard of innovative projects such as “Lantern Libraries” where lanterns are held by schools and kept charged up. The idea is for pupils to borrow a lantern from school (sometimes for a small cost recovery fee) to take home. In darkness, the pupil has a light to see their way home, and at home, the pupil can study using the light. The addition of the built-in alarm just makes the whole concept better as a child can activate it if he/she is attached.

Conclusion.
Freeplay’s original concept to connect communities to broadcasters is just as relevant today as it was back in the 1990s when Trevor Baylis launched his first wind up products. In the Aid and Development sector, mobile phone networks are used by the UN and NGOs to interact with communities. Whether it’s a cash voucher system, SMS reminders for appointments at clinics or community engagement via collection of feedback over SMS, mobile phones are needed and they need to be charged. This requirement has not escaped Freeplay as in the three technologies we reviewed, all of them have built in sockets and supplied with the appropriate adaptors to charge up most mobile phones and other USB devices.

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Is your organisation licensed to use radio and satcoms?

Imagine being in a large room of a few hundred people speaking at once. This could be a social gathering such as a wedding or some other event. One person in that room has been designated to give a speech. To get control, that person taps the side of a glass and the room falls silent. The person speaks and the message is delivered. By convention, this person has the authority to get people to pay attention. People comply as convention has dictated that the person at the top table at some point needs to speak and this can only be done if everyone else plays along. Buy what if there were no convention, how does one person get heard by all? 

In the world of telecommunications, we face the same challenge. Various frequencies across the radio spectrum are used all over the world for voice and data communications. Different frequencies in that spectrum can be regarded as rooms where if everyone tries to communicate at the same time, no information is passed.  

In this article, we will take a close look at how the radio spectrum is managed. Licensing is the key method to impose order over the sort of technologies we use. Licensing will vary from country to country and in some places, if rules are broken, severe penalties can be dished out by local authorities. Read on to find out how licensing works for radio, VSAT and general sat-coms and how to avoid being caught out.

If you are short of time and cannot read the full article now, scroll down to the final section and answer my challenge to you. You answer might lead you to take actions to avoid a large fine or members of your staff being sent to prison!

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

itu

The ITU has existed as a body for 150 years. It is the specialist UN agency which governs telecommunications whether its telephones, internet standards, radio communications or satellite communications.  Initially it was founded as an international conference to make the transmission of wired telegraph signals more efferent. From 1901 radio communications started to become popular and by 1906, the incompatibility between radio systems meant that some sort of standard would be needed as a result, the very first radiotelegraph convention was produced which is now known as the Radio Regulations we use today. The ITU joined the newly created United Nations in January 1949.

The radio frequency spectrum is a very precious and finite resources. It is imperative that the radio spectrum is managed properly otherwise all radio users will interfere with each other thus making the smooth flow of communications impossible.  Over the years, 130 nations have signed up to the ITU and as a result various regulations have been agreed which reserves specific frequencies for specific uses. At sea, ships use a combination of short range and long range radio frequencies so that ship to ship and ship to shore communications take place. Channel 16 (156.800Mhz) is known to all mariners around the world as the international frequency to send a distress call. Other allocated uses will include aviation, amateur radio etc.

The is also the regulator for data communications. They allocate orbit slots for international communications satellites such as VSAT and allocate what frequencies should be used by each satellite. As satellite signals are highly directional, frequencies are often reused but when this happens, the ITU ensures that satellites which use the same frequencies are sufficiently spaced apart so that they do not interfere with each other.

Many frequencies are do not have international classification and as some frequencies are short range allocation is delegated to government agencies.

In addition to allocating frequencies, the ITU is a standard setting organization. It specifies the format used to transmit data and voice and defines how much clear space must be left between each frequency so that interference is avoided. Over the years, as technology has improved, spacing has been reduced which has allowed more channels to be created. In the maritime VHF band, capacity has doubled since the 1950s.

National Government
In each country, the government will usually have an authority which regulates the use of the radio frequency spectrum. These authorities have such an important role to play that they exist in even the newest countries such as South Sudan. A full list of regulating authorities can be found on Wikipedia.  So what do these authorities do? How much power do they have?
CCK FCC OFCOMgoss

 

 

The telecoms regulators have a great deal of power. Their expertise should never be underestimated as they will have access to technicians. In sparsely populated countries like Australia and many other countries in Africa, radio has been the main form of communications for many decades. Locally, the authorities will be responsible for the following;

  • Allocation of frequencies to organisations.
  • Equipment type approval.
  • Licensing of media broadcasting (commercial radio and TV stations)
  • Approval of unlicensed equipment (combination of equipment type approval, frequency allocation with transmission power limits).
  • Investigation and enforcement.

Some countries are more sensitive than others to the use of radio and satellite communications. Infringement of regulations will result in a range of punishments such as fines, confiscation of equipment,  imprisonment, deportation or an order for an organization to cease all activity, close and leave the country.

Some countries have a light touch approach, but others will have very prescriptive regulations which must be complied with. Regulations will apply to anything which transmits or receives and can potentially cover VHF Radio, HF Radio, VSAT, portable satellite communications and in some cases, a permit is needed for SatNav (GPS)!

In many countries, NGOs ignore such rules and fail to register equipment. The nature of communications means that the technology can be detected if used which can result in sanctions if the equipment is not licensed.

To get legal can be complex. International NGOs may need to involve other government departments. Licenses might not be awarded by government agencies unless perhaps the following permissions have been obtained:

  • Planning permission for aerials.
  • Validation by the ministry of finance to confirm taxes have been paid on the equipment
  • Proof that the organization applying has sufficiently qualified radio operators
  • Permission granted by police, military and other security related authorities.
  • Permission and support from any agency the NGO is working with.

The process is easier in some countries than others, but not the same in all countries.

How to be legal
The golden rule is to know the rules and do not break them. Here are a few tips on how to stay legal (or get legal!)

  • Know what communications equipment is legal in the country where you are working. In some places, only certain brands of satellite telephone may be used. Also beware of importing mass marketed PMR license free radios. These radios are normally sold in specific regions and comply with local laws. A PMR radio bought in Spain, can be used throughout Europe legally, but would be illegal in the USA, Asia, Middle East and Africa.
  • Do your homework first. When applying for a radio license, you need to develop a country communications plan first. Have an awareness where all of your sites are located. For longer range radio communications such as Codan HF SSB, get expert advice from a radio trusted radio expert. You need to have an understanding of what frequencies are likely to work between sites before you apply for a license.
  • Radio authorities will give you potentially complex forms asking for details about the radio, aerial and radio station location. Make sure accurate information is provided. Get advice from a radio expert if needed. If you do not understand any questions, don’t guess the answer. Always provide accurate and truthful information.

Radio licensing can be expensive as there will be multiple charges. As a bare minimum, organizations will be charged for each frequency they are allocated. In many countries, there might be a fee per every radio, VSAT or satellite phone licensed. Where this is the case, organizations will need to contact the regulator each time a new piece of equipment is commissioned.

The licensing process can take a long time. In some countries, licenses are required before any attempt is made to import a radio. It is really important that procurement teams validate that the radios are permitted in the country to begin with. SCI radio kits comply with most country standards, however be careful about which satellite phones are imported. Inmarsat products are illegal in Ethiopia, but Thuraya is permitted. There will be plenty of other examples.

Do not break the terms of any license. Licenses tend to be specific, and will become invalid if the equipment specification is changed. The easiest way organization break rules is by adding additional frequencies for which they are licensed. Organization have been caught out in Kenya and have been fined.

VSAT also needs licensing. If you have purchased VSAT from a local supplier, and they tell you that your site is licensed, ask for proof. The VSAT is only licensed if you have documentation to prove it.

The license is only valid for use by the organization it has been granted to. If the legal entity of the site changes for any reason (e.g. Equipment and site transferred to local partner), in most countries, the license becomes invalid and a new one in needed.

Special circumstances: In some countries, radios might be programmed by WFP, ETC or another UN agency. Generally they will have a blanket license in place to cover the humanitarian response community. It is essential check that any radios use are covered under such special arrangements.

The big challengechallenge

Are your communications systems in country legal?

  • Do you know where your license(s) kept?
  • Is the license up to date?
  • Does it cover all the radios owned in country?
  • Does it cover  all the frequencies used?
  • Have any changes been made to equipment since the license was granted?
  • Has any equipment been relocated?  If so, was the license updated?

How to make the problem go away.
Action will be required to establish where organisations might be exposed. Once gaps have been identified, the next step is apply for licenses in all places where they may be needed. depending upon the size of your organisation this might end up being a massive task which requires outside help. Specialist businesses such as
Hyde Associates exist to provide licensing assistance. They can project manage license applications and then continue to work with client organisations to actively manage licences so that the organisation remains legal all of the time.

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Internet from Space: Behind the scenes

Each day, hundreds of NGOs and UN agencies access internet services which come from satellites in space. Generally these services are accessed by using large dishes at sites which are located in very remote locations. These dishes and their associated electronics are known as VSAT. Save the Children is operating 50 sites across Africa. Various UN agencies such as WFP and UNHCR operate hundreds of these system. Satellite based internet is very reliable if the right provider is selected. In this article, we are going to unveil the technology behind the scenes in Germany which make this vital service to remote locations so reliable.

EMC 1EMC2

Dishes, small and large
The technology deployed to remote field sites is fairly simple. Typically a system will consist of a dish which is 1.2m to 2.4m depending upon which satellite and frequency is used. Inside, there is a modem connected to the dish outside and it’s the modem which feeds internet access into the local office network. At the teleport things are complex, much more complex. Dishes are much larger as they need to connect to many remote stations via the satellite. There may be many large dishes at the teleport as larger organisations may use multiple satellites to reach wide area via multiple foot prints.

The largest teleport in Germany is at Raisting, close to Munich. This teleport used to be owned by Deutsche Telecom but sold on to EMC, a private operator who provides services to hundreds of UN sites. This site was opened in the 1960’s and its build quality is quite amazing.  Further North in Germany is the CETel teleport which is used by Speedcast to provide its service to the 50 sites operated by Save the Children International. The CETel teleport is much newer. Unlike the massive antennas in Raisting, CETel is using smaller lightweight antennas. 

Raisting history – Cold war and football
The first aerial was built on the site between 1962 and 1962. It was initially used to provide telephone links between the EU and the USA. The dish is housed inside a dome and is still in working order, sometimes used for educational scientific experiments. The Dome and its equipment is now set up as a museum.

Aerials located at the site were used as part of the secure hotline which linked the Whitehouse in the USA to the Kremlin in Russia (Formerly the USSR). Whilst a red telephone has been used in movies etc., the cold war hotline was never a red telephone. The link was initially a telex line. Later it was changed to Fax. These days, the link exists as secure email between the two presidents.

 In addition to voice communications this site has seen some historical broadcasts such as the Olympic games. More recently the FIFA world cup was broadcast to the world during 2006 from Raisting. 

red phonedome

How it all works
The teleport is a 24×7 operation which is providing essential communications links to VSAT sites across a huge area from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian ocean. The clients range from the UN and NGO sites in remote locations to expensive superyachts and cruise liners at sea. This is serious business and a short break in service would cause a lot of inconvenience to many. In the case of some commercial operations such as oil exploration, the loss of internet access could lead to significant financial losses. On this basis, many teleports such as the ones operated by CETel and EMC have ensured that all possible points of failure have been covered.

Electricity is provided to the 20,000V site ring main by the local power company at Raisting. As a backup, there are a number of generators around the site which has the capability to deliver over 4,000 KW of power. This is enough energy to power a small town. Enough fuel is stored at the site to run the generators for a few weeks.

generorator ema tank

In the event of a power failure, generators can take a few minutes to start up. To bridge the power gap, a giant UPS system is in place to keep things running. Many of you will be familiar with the APC UPS which is a combined battery and inverter. The pictures below is also a UPS, but at an enormous scale. This UPS system is so massive that it takes up two floors. The inverter units are on the upper floor, and the batteries are in the bunker. The batteries shown below is just one bank of two in one room, there are other rooms with more batteries. The UPS has enough capacity to run the centre for up to 8 hours.
EMC UPS1 EMC UPS2
Other engine rooms exists to provide other essential services. In the picture below left, boilers are used to generate hot water which is feed to the antennas. Elements in the back of the dishes are heated by the hot water loops to prevent ice forming on the dishes. The heating is essential as the snow which forms at around 2 degrees (locally called “Sticky Snow”) can change the reflective shape of the dish, thus causing communications issues for the remote VSAT sites. Heating is really expensive so to ensure that not too much energy is used up, a very sophisticated monitoring system is in place to make sure that just enough energy is used to keep the dishes clear of snow and ice (Local monitoring panel shown in bottom right picture).
heat 1 heat 2

The power and the heating is just part of a much bigger system which connects the remote VSAT systems to the internet. We are now going to look at some the electronics;

idirect hubSignals from the dish will be routed via several systems to clean up the signal by reducing background interference. Space is a very noisy place and as the satellites are 36,000KM away, the signals will be weak, so need to be amplified. These signals will eventually arrive at a modulator / demodulator which is a device which turns internet data format into a form which can be transmitted through space.  

The picture to the left is the iDirect Hub, which is the technology used by Save the Children and other organizations for their VSAT. Other technologies such as NewTec and Hughes are also popular. These technologies are the demodulators and modulators and as you might expect, these hubs also support other tasks such as network monitoring so that technicians at the centre can check that are performing correctly.  

The hubs are kept in a data centre which is separate to the large dishes. It is here where Space meets the Internet. Signals arrive via fibre optic cables from the dishes and then linked to the internet via dark fibre to the internet. 
Some clients may host their own equipment within the teleport data centre.  

The massive aerials at Raisting are mounted on a multi-level building (Which also contains a toilet!). Fairly high up in the building is another electronics room full of racks which just deal with the radio frequency. The picture on the bottom left shows the units which convert the fibre transmitted information from the data centre. The middle picture is the up-converter which converts the signals into radio frequency, and finally the picture on the right is a power amp which makes the signal powerful enough to send to space.

Wigglyamps 1Wigglyamps 2Wigglyamps 3

From Large to Small!
Typically, VSAT stations used in the remote field sites are too large to carry in an emergency and can take time to set up. At the Raisting teleport, there is a team of engineers who design solutions for field use. The VSAT system shown below is designed to be split up into 5 cases. EMC have worked on the transport cases so that each one weighs less that 23KG which is the standard weight for each item of baggage allowed by most airlines.

Portable VSAT is really designed for short term use such as for emergency responses. It’s during a major crisis where responders will need access to the internet so that they can coordinate activities. Initially, even more portable internet solutions such as BGAN will provide instant internet access from a device which is smaller than a laptop, however at $5 per Mb, BGAN is expensive to run, which is why a portable VSAT needs to be flown in shortly after a response has been launched.

fly 1 fly 2

Conclusion
Where organizations have long term operations at remote sites, or short term projects following a disaster, it is important that people working in remote and disconnected locations are provided with a reliable connection. VSAT providers such as EMC, Speedcast, Eutelsat, Castell, AST, NSSL and many more all have reliable teleports. They build in plenty of redundancy such as multiple power suppliers, multiple internet links and even a spare standby dish which can be trained on a satellite if the normal dish fails. I have visited three of these teleports over the years, all operated by different organizations. One thing which is common to all of them is the people. They are highly trained, experienced and committed. Above all, they really enjoy doing their job in the data centre. It’s the quality of the people and technology combined which helps us stay connected with very little downtime at all.

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Beyond the Grid

One of the biggest challenges for NGOs who operate in remote places is keeping the lights on, especially in locations where national power infrastructure is unreliable. These remote locations are “beyond the grid” so any power requirements need to be provided by organisations themselves.  Generators are the most frequent solution to power problems, but are expensive to run and maintain. A simple failure of a vital component or late delivery of fuel will plunge a site into darkness for a number of days. Lack of power also means other vital services such as communications will begin to fail as backup batteries start to run out of power.

Solar energy systems are often considered as a suitable alternative. As a technologist in the aid sector, I tend to be bombarded with loads of promotional blurb about solar energy dressed up as “The latest scientific breakthrough !” I want to dispel the sales hype from these organisations as 99% of the targeted adverting I receive  is not offering anything new. Solar energy is a very well established industry, offering a very simple solution of solar panels to collect energy, batteries to store it, and some wibbly wobbly electrics to move the power around the circuits. Solar energy as a concept could be considered as a mature product and thus no different to any other market. There plenty of manufacturers and thousands of companies who sell and install the systems. And like other industries, you will find that there is a range of qualities from good to bad. So there is not really much happening which is new in the form of technical innovation.

In this article, I will briefly set out some of the reasons why we might wish to change to solar energy for some sites. I will also cover the reasons why the current approach to solar energy often ends up in failure. Finally I will explain how one organisations is kick starting a pilot to use a new model which could deliver sustainable solar energy systems. Save the Children is being offered an opportunity to take advantage of this new pilot!

smokinWhy change?
In large offices, it’s unlikely that generators can be avoided, simply due to the power needed to run the office and the lack of space to set up an array of solar panels large enough to service the power demand. There are however,  plenty of sites where power loads are modest and could be served by a solar system. A well-designed good quality solar system can outlive generators, are less likely to fail,  quiet and will not pollute. Incorrect implementation of generators lead to unstable power which can destroy sensitive electronics. Poor management of fuel supplies or theft adds to the overall expense of delivering power. During my travels, I have seen plenty of examples where the set-up of  power systems have presented an outright danger to people (a subject covered in some depth in a previous article).

Inverter

The problem with the current solar approach
Over the years,  I have seen many attempts by NGOs to adopt solar energy systems. Many of these systems have not lasted long. Some have failed within a few months after the engineers have left. In Nimule Hospital, South Sudan, a very complicated solar panel array was installed at great expense. The panels were mounted on a mechanical frame which used motors to keep the array pointed at the sun. In my opinion, this was an over engineered solution with too many components which could fail. A great solution for places with access to spares and qualified engineers,  but for a location where there is no ongoing support, this was the wrong solution.

There are other challenges. Real daft things start to happen as shown in the picture to the left. An inverter falls onto the battery bank, no attempt has been made to fix the problem.  Other things are stored in the battery room. Notice the gas bottle to the bottom right? A leak and a spark could result in a significant explosion.

Even when things are set up well and there are qualified electricians to keep on top of things, there will are still significant challenges:

  • Lack of budget or proper design leads to a solar system which is not large enough to service the demand
  • Lack of change management leads to new items being added to the site, more load means that power will not last as long.
  • Where local users are not correctly briefed in the use of power, then batteries will run out of power early.

The solar energy market also has its share of corrupt suppliers. I have direct experience of a situation in the DRC where a supplier tried to pass off cheap Chinese manufactured components as good quality BP solar systems. The fraud did not stop at that. The supplier managed re-labelled products so that panels designed to deliver 100W were labelled as 140W!  As with most industries, there is always a risk of this sort of fraud, and sadly these crooks will often get away with this practice as there is a lack of engineers working for NGOs with the required skills to spot these issues.

Whilst there are plenty of bad examples, I have seen a handful of systems which have been implemented well. In Liberia, West Coast Solar has been building solar energy systems for clinics belonging to the Ministry of Health and  Social Welfare for many years. Their approach ensures that their solutions are fit for purpose and deliver power efficiently for year. As a standard approach, WCS builds in some autonomy so that enough power is stored in batteries to keep the lights on during the days when the weather is overcast.

How the approach to providing solar energy will be disrupted.
Until scientist start to make massive leaps forward in ways that would enable solar panels to produce more power and for batteries to be able to store more energy, we need to find breakthroughs elsewhere. Why is this important?  Firstly, if these technical breakthroughs happen, it takes a long time for new innovations to reach the market as mass produced products. Secondly, the current technology is fit for purpose, it’s just the application of the current technology where breakthroughs are needed.

In a nutshell, here is the solution!

Be more holistic when considering a solar energy system: It is not good enough to just replace a generator with a solar energy system. The design should also change the technology we buy which uses power. Why?  A good solar energy system will generate power for a few hours each day. Energy is stored in batteries. Once all of the energy has been used, there will be no more power created until the sun comes out again. One of the biggest drains on power is caused by inverters, a device designed to convert DC power stored in the batteries to 220V AC. Inverters waste money and its possible that they can be eliminated completely by using DC circuits only. Here are some examples:

  • LED lights have moved efficient energy consumption forward significantly over the past 5 years. Some LED lights can produce the same amount of light as a 100W bulb, yet only consumes 5W or less.
  • Radio equipment runs on 12V, so why do we need to waste energy at the inverter to generate 220V and then use a transformer to reduce it back to 12V again for the radio?
  • Laptops are more efficient than desktop computers. So why not buy laptops for the office and charge them using the same DC charges as people use on aircraft?
  • 12V printers can be used in office spaces.
  • Mobile phones and satellite telephones can also run on 12V. We routinely charge these devices in cars, so why not on a 12V grid in the office?

There will be some things where we will always require 220V, that’s fine, but if we can reduce as many items to 12V as possible, then our energy budget starts to look very sustainable.

Consider a managed solution: A new social enterprise based in Norway may have the solution. Kube Energy wants to work with NGOs to deliver sustainable solar energy solutions. They are developing a very interesting model where they source good quality solar systems and then use qualified local partners to install and then maintain the systems. The uptake of solar energy in developing nations for domestic programmes has led to an increase is manufacturing of solar systems. Since 2010, the increase is manufacturing as resulted in a 60% fall in hardware costs. This means that the concept of using solar instead of a generator is more than financially viable. So what is it Kube does that is different?

The top line benefit is that the NGO will be provided with energy with no upfront costs. Kube uses a leasing model which means that the cost to set up and maintain the system is recovered through monthly payments. Over the lifetime of the system, operational costs will be less than operating a diesel generator. A well designed solar system which is sized correctly to support the load will not have a lot of downtime. Generators on the other hand need to be switched off after a few hours to rest.

What will make this model a success is the way the system will be monitored and maintained. With modern technology it’s possible to monitor and analyse power usage. Any changes in patterns can be quickly identified and actions can be taken to keep the system viable. These actions could include the removal of new and unauthorised loads from the site, or perhaps modification to the system to support a new load.

In their promotional materials, Kube has set out how much money could be saved over a 5 year period for an office which uses 65 KWH per day. This case study was based on a medium size office running 5 aircons, 25 computers, flood lights and an internet connection.

kube stats

If commissioned by an NGO to deliver a solar system, Kube will work closely with the NGO to assess the site. The Kube team will look at the best places to position solar panels, calculate the size of the system (based on load), assess access for delivery and how to secure the system. Based on the outcome of the assessment, Kube will be able to prepare a solar lease proposal.

Kube will then use the assessment data to design a system. Their energy systems range from 5KW up to 200KW. Their systems have been modelled on the designs used by the telecoms industry where reliable systems are needed to power mobile phone towers.

As soon as the lease has been agreed, Kube will deploy local partners to deliver and install the new solar system.

Conclusion
I think we are now at a turning point when it comes to solar energy. If Kube can get its leasing business model off the ground, I believe that it will be a great success as long as system are maintained and organisations are disciplined in the use of power and not add new demands without revising the overall system design. Of course the provision of solar energy system needs to complimented by other actions such as using LED lights and reducing the need for inverters and transformers through the adoption of DC equipment.

For NGOs, there is a now an opportunity to try the model. In 2016, Kube is seeking funding to kick start several pilots. Once they have sourced funding, they will reach out to NGOs for sites to run these pilots. You can learn more about Kube at www.kubeenergy.com

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Keeping up to date to stay safe.

NGOs work in some of the most unstable places on this planet. In some locations there are serious risks from potential natural disasters such as cyclones, volcanoes and earthquakes. Staff safety is also put at risk by man-made events such as war, acts of terrorism or public protest.

Organisations have a duty to keep people safe and will have policies in place to govern how aid is delivered in such a way that risks to staff are reduced.

The flow of information about events is regarded as very important for two reasons:  Firstly if the event happens in a place where the organisation operates, accurate information will enable decision makers to take the correct actions to keep staff safe. Secondly, event information is useful to organisations far away from an event. For example, an alert about a severe earthquake would give emergency response personnel a heads up that they might soon be deployed.

In this article, we will explore some warning and monitoring tools – some are free of charge, others need to be paid for. Note – I have saved the best to last!

Free alerts
There are many organisation on the web which send out alerts when significant natural events take place. The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) is supported by the UN and EU. GDACS is constantly kept up date with many events ranging from minor to major. Coverage is fully global and its free to set up an account.

gdacs

Anyone can set up an account at www.gdacs.org. As soon as the account is active, users will be able to customise settings so that they can receive alerts and updates about various types of natural disaster. For those with a specific interested in a certain geographical region or country, the account can be set to send alerts which only cover the geographical area of interest.

For major natural events such as strong earthquakes near population centres, cyclones and Tsunami alerts, GDACs will send out SMS alerts to subscribers in addition to email messages.

For those with Smartphones, GDACs can be accessed via a fee app.

Other free resources: In addition to GDACs, there are various local options around the world – especially in areas where there are frequent risks. The USGS runs an alert service for seismic events which covers the globe. Weather is a severe risk to the USA and they have set up the National Hurricane Centre (part of NOAA). Their website is a great place to track hurricanes as they form out to sea. Although NOAA is operated by the US Government, the area of coverage includes the Caribbean.

NOAA used to push email and text alerts. This stopped a few years ago as messaging was outsourced to third parties. The link to the NOAA site will take you to a list of third parties who distribute information – some do it for free.

United States Geographical Survey: https://sslearthquake.usgs.gov/ens/ United States Weather (NOAA) http://www.weather.gov/subscribe

Commercial Solutions
International SOSInternational SOS / Control Risks: In addition to natural disasters, travellers need to know about manmade events such as riots, demonstrations, war, acts of terrorism and other risks. Many NGOs use a service which is provided jointly by International SOS and Control risks. Organisations often buy in this service along with medical insurance. Staff who belong to organisations  which have subscribed to this service will be able to keep up to date about local  significant events which can present a risk to safety. The app also links users to country information useful to travellers – normally information about visas, security, travel, medical and culture information for business travellers. A button is also included so that the local number for International SOS is dialled should medical assistance be required.

Safeture – Global Warning System (GWS): Whilst free solutions such as GDACs are free, they should only be regarded as one jigsaw in the big safety and security picture. International SOS/Control Risks are two very reputable organisations who provide really reliable information from its network of global agents. Safeture GWS to me is the Gold standard as this system is much more than a means to access information or connect people to medical assistance. GWS connects staff to their safety and security teams in a very ingenious way using the technology that exists in may smart phones.

GWS an advanced safety and security management system. The control portal allows managers to sign on and view current information alerts for all countries where staff are based. Safeture has developed a system which captures information from a wide variety of sources ranging from local news services to global systems like GDACs. For events of high importance such as Tsunami alerts, the system is designed to get the alerts to staff automatically as services such as USGS and GDACs are regarded as trusted sources. Real people will monitor further news following any event and will rerelease information as soon as its been verified (This happens quickly by the way).

Important messages are delivered to users via SMS as well as the internet App.

The screen shot below shows the main overview screen. Staff locations are displayed along with a link so that managers can send messages directly to staff by SMS. In an event such as a terrorist attack,  this system gives organisations the ability to track staff, account for their safety and to send instructions  – perhaps informing them of a safe place to muster.

GWS1

GWS2
GWS can be downloaded as an app onto Android, Apple, Blackberry and Microsoft smartphones.

The GWS app utilises several features on the smartphone to provide the end user with a complete safety and security service.  The app uses a combination of GPS and network triangulation to establish the users location. This enables the app to display relevant national information. Users can also display information for other countries. GPS is also used to report the users location back to the system so that managers can monitor.

The SOS button brings up a new screen which allows the user to call local emergency services such as the police. If such a call is made, notification goes back to the system to let managers know that an SOS call has been made.

Staff may not wish to be monitored all of the time if they are present in their home countries and “off duty” To protect the privacy of the user, the smart phone can be set to only report which country the user is located, but not where in that country.

In addition to news and alerts, WGS also displays country information. The content is similar to what is provided by Control Risks, but organisations can also add further information such as country office locations, contact lists, and curfew information.

GWS4GWS3

Conclusion
In highly insecure environments this is possibly the most effective security solution I have seen to date. Specialist tracking devices can attract the wrong sort of information. The ability to deliver an information and tracking system on devices which people already own is just pure ingenuity. This system will work well in most places where there is basic mobile coverage. In places where there is no internet access, staff will be able to receive important alerts via SMS and then send back their locations by SMS by pressing a button on the handset. Safeture GWS would be a great investment for any organisation who take safety and security seriously.

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Innovation – The best of 2015

Each year I am bombarded with new ideas from various inventors, some inventions are wacky, but are still looking for a problem to be solved. Other ideas could be useful but needs a little more work. Occasionally I am shown technology which is cheap simple and makes the problems they are trying to solve just disappear. Towards the end of 2015, I attended Aidex and the Nethope Summit.  Here are a few solutions which caught my eye.

airdrop 1Airdrops: a 20th century  concept with a 21st century twist
Aviators have been throwing all sorts attached to parachutes out of the back of low flying aircraft for nearly 100 years, so what could be new?

Traditionally airdrops have been used to deliver leaflets or much larger items.  The key challenge with larger items is that if its food, medicines or other items, is that they may be damaged when the package lands. As most items may be in a cluster of large packages, some people may grab all of the items and then sell it on – not the desired intention.

In 2010 following the earthquake in Haiti, logistics was the main challenge as there was a massive requirement to ship “stuff” to the places it was needed, but airport access was a challenge – a key bottleneck which prevents aid getting to affected populations.  Access to airports have been a major challenge during a few emergencies since Haiti, so how can we bypass the airport and get basic items to affected populations at scale? 

Sky Life (http://skylifetech.com/homepage/) have developed a system which delivers essential items like food, water, first aid kits to people over a wide area. It works similar to leaflet drops but with a difference. Boxes are dropped from planes which open up whilst still airborne. Small packages which are light enough to cause injury can be delivered over a wide area in an urban setting.

airdrop 2During a crisis such as an earthquake, people need information about where they might be able to get help. Its during disasters like earthquakes where infrastructure may be damaged and prevents radio stations and mobile networks from operating. The tradition method of leaflet drops may have limited value in some communities where literacy rates are high.

Sky Life have developed a technical solution to make the task of delivering messages more efficient. For a number of years, it has been possible to buy cheap greeting cards which have some cheap electronics built in to play a song or a pre-recoded message. The Live Leaf is a card which will play a pre-recorded message about where help can be found.

The innovation does not stop at messaging. Sky Life is developing a more technical version of the live leaf which has a built in AM or FM radio receiver tuned to the correct frequency where up to date information will be broadcast.

Other developments in the pipeline include a GPS tracker and two way communications. People will be able to let emergency responders know what sort of aid is needed. Signals would be picked up by aircraft which may be in range.

Skylife have developed the technology to load new messages onto Life Leaf quickly so that up iodate messages  can be loaded on the card immediately before planes depart from adjacent countries to the disaster.

drone 1The eye in the sky
“Drones” have been in the media for some time now and mainly for the wrong reasons. Large military drones are used to gather intelligence and to launch weapons, so the use of the word “Drone” can cause a great deal of concern in some countries. Smaller lightweight drones have been used during humanitarian response, most recently in Nepal. In the aid sector, people prefer to use the term Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV. These aerial platforms have been used to film affected areas using high definition cameras. In some emergencies, getting a birds eye view of a situation will enable humanitarian aid coordinators to map out what assistance is needed  and where.

UAVs are lightweight and can be deployed instantly. Before UAVs appeared, NGOs had to rely on film footage from light aircraft and helicopters, an expensive solution which may not always be available due to airport access and operational costs.

Dan Office IT (http://www.danoffice.com/uav-drone/multi-rotor-uavs.aspx) is a leading supplier of UAVs to NGOs. They have deployed to a number of recent disasters and have supported the response community by providing aerial footage to NGOs.

drone 2UAVs have become very popular for leisure use in recent years. UAVs are mass produced to various qualities and many cheaper UAVs are made to poor quality. As UAVs are remote control, it is really important that good quality UAVs are purchased which has the required range. Beware of the low grade UAVs which operate over Wi-Fi as they go out of range after just over 100 metres.

Helicopter style UAVs are best suited to very local operations. Battery life is often quite short. For longer range reconnaissance, we still need to rely on traditional aviation, but Dan Office are planning to bring fixed wing UAVs to the market. The UAV in the picture has the ability to take of vertically.

So far UAVs are mainly used for filming, but as the technology advances they might be able to achieve much more. For example UAVs could be used to act as a communications relay between the Live Leaf technologies?  Larger UAVs might be able to carry out air drops.

There could be some challenges to operating UAVs as various countries are trying to regulate their use. In the USA, laws exists which forbids UAVs from being used near to public buildings. The CAA are serious considering setting up a registration system due to the high volume of UAVs being purchased for personal use. In other countries, the use of UAVs may be regulated by various state departments such as civil aviation,  military, police, data protection and perhaps communications. Data protection can be very sensitive as people may wish to assert their privacy from overhead cameras.

3d pThe small industrial revolution
I have been to plenty of events and trade shows where various organisations have demonstrated 3D printing. On each occasion these new machines have produced a perfectly formed rabbit, a model of the Eifel Tour or some other worthless piece of plastic. I am sure many other would have asked what is the point of 3D printing?  Why should we spend money on this toy?  Is this yet another solution looking for a problem to fix?

During the Aidex Expo in Brussels, one organisation managed to convince me that perhaps 3D printing could be useful to the aid sector. The key area where I can see this technology adding some value is for plumbing parts. Water and sanitation systems have many types of joints and valves and over time things wear out. Getting replacement parts can be a major challenge. It may be impractical due to lack of storage space and finance to hold a vast stock of spares, so what if we started a new industrial revolution to make our own spares on site? 

3D printers are now readily available and come in all sorts of sizes. Currently items are made from plastic. Complex 3D printers exists which can produce items made from metal, but this sort of technology is expensive and found in industries such as Space, Aviation and Defence.

Plastic is good for now. We can replace existing plastic parts with new parts we can make ourselves on site. 3D printing can be a great enabler for making items out of other materials. The method is really simple, use a 3D printer to create a mould and from that, you can create plenty of objects at high volume.

3D printers are just one part of the solution. To create objects, special software is need to be installed on a connected computer to turn a design into an actual object. In the emergency setting, if an engineer needs a new widget designed quickly, online communities now exists who will design objects for you.

As 3D technology advances, the way we procure many things may be disrupted. We are nowhere near being able to produce really complex working items such as computers using 3D printing, but I can see 3D printing having a disruptive impact on simple construction items such as plumbing. This could be a great opportunity for small business as a local shop will have the capacity to deliver a vast range of products from a 3D Printer.

Initially, the key challenges to disruptive change will not be the technology, it will be intellectual property rights. People who design and patent designs will realise a small royalty on every item made and sold. Copying existing parts will start to attract legal challenges. In due course a design license solution is likely to appear which ensures that an inventor gets a fee for each fee a 3D printer makes. No doubt the 3D Intellectual Property will suffer the same challenges as the software industry.

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Satellite Communications: The good and the ugly!

Over the past 15 years, there has been a massive expansion in the availability of mobile networks in developing countries. Many NGOs have adopted mobile phones as a primary form of communication. The costs associated with running mobile are very small compared with running a satellite telephones as mobile handsets and airtime are a fraction of the costs of using satellite. Due to the low price of GSM technology, more people in NGO teams are being issued with mobile phones by their organisations. This has really improved the efficiency of an operation as GSM has made it very easy to reach individuals in a team.  

Before GSM really took off, radio and satellite communications were the only means to communicate. For those of you who go back further than the 1990’s the only option back then was radio. Satellite and radio still has a major role to play as many NGOs operate in the most challenging places in the world where security may be poor and infrastructure weak. This week, it was brought to my attention that one mobile network in South Sudan failed for a number of weeks. This meant that people operating in the area affected had to revert to radio and satellite. Most organisations will have safety and security policies in place which defines the need for back up communications. Across the globe many NGOS and UN organisations operate very large sat-phone fleets.  Save the Children operates more than 600 satellite telephones. In this article, we will explore the “good” and the “not so good” about satellite communications.

chopper

 The Good: An essential safety net

 Satellite phones do not relay on local infrastructure which makes them a great back up for emergencies or as a means for routine communication in remote places where there are gaps in coverage. Very recently the higher end models from Thuraya, Iridium and Inmarsat have included a distress button so that help can be summoned in an emergency. Iridium has partnered with GEOS (https://www.geosalliance.net/geosalert/monitor_iridiumExtreme.aspx) where all active Iridium phones (Iridium Extreme and Iridium Go) can be registered for the basic monitoring service at no extra cost. Monitoring is activated by filling in an online form with details about two emergency contacts. Once set up, if the emergency button is pressed, the Iridium will send location details to the GEOS monitoring centre where duty staff will attempt to contact the people listed on its system.

For an additional fee, GEOS can be more proactive and instigate a call on behalf of the satellite phone owner to capable rescue authorities. In places where search and rescue is not provided by the government, GEOS have arrangements in place for calling in private airplanes and helicopters for search and rescue or medivac. Whilst the monthly subscription is very low, organisations should be prepared to be hit with a hefty bill should private SAR resources are mobilised. Emergency buttons on most sat phones have a cover which means that accidental alerts should not occur. If subscribing organisations do sign up to GEOS, end users should be thoroughly briefed.  

 Thuraya does not have an agreement with any external organisation, however its SOS button can be set up to call or send a message to any pre-defined contact. Inmarsat has Search and Rescue in its DNA. Inmarsat was founded initially as an NGO to provide direct voice communications and distress alerting capability for ships at sea which still exists to this very day. On land, Inmarsat’s new IsatPhone 2 includes a button where distress messages can be sent to pre-set numbers.

Whilst both Inmarsat and Thuraya do not have any formal agreement with a monitoring centre, there are organisations such as Sicuro of Dubai who can offer such services. Organisations can also make their own arrangements by setting up an emergency phone manned by a security officer 24/7 to receive calls for help.

Older sat phones will not have that emergency button, however an emergency contact number can be added to the speed dial list.

SIM

The Ugly: Satellite telephone SIM card frustration 

Satellite phones are a great resource, especially in times of emergency. However managing a fleet of over 600 devices for an NGO such as Save the Children comes with it challenges. The majority of funding comes from institutional donors and quite rightly, NGOs are directed to go to the market on a regular basis to seek out the best deal. The satellite networks do not deal direct with subscribing organisations, instead specialists organisations such as Castell Satcom Radio exists to resell services on behalf of all networks. In the NGO community we are fortunate to be served by some great resellers, but in my opinion the market is completely broken as it is not easy to migrate between providers.  

Over the years, I have launched a tender for satellite services on at least four occasions for NGOs. The tendering process is meant to get the best deal on the table for NGOs. Each time a tender is launched, various resellers will make a big effort to bid for business.  The big challenge begins if an organisation receives a better deal and wants to switch to a new provider. For Save the Children, that means 600 SIM cards would need to be sent to hundreds of destinations. People need to physically swap each SIM card, from HQ level, trying to get everyone is more of a challenge than you might think. A recent exercise to swap 150 SIM cards was launched 7 months ago following the migration of Merlin into SCI. The task is still ongoing but will soon be complete.

I have migrated SIM cards on at least three occasions in the past, and it was painful on each occasion. In a few years time when we go out to the market again, the idea of having to change 600+ SIM cards does not fill me with joy.

In a bidding contest, we ask the market to compete which they do well. Across all of the bids, there is not a massive difference in pricing. The cost of the effort to swap 600 SIM cards will far outweigh the savings made due to the cost in time to change SIM cards. So the market is really broken and all of the networks need to step in and fix it. The current arrangement is neither good for the NGOs or the resellers. The NGOs cannot drive down costs in airtime by switching providers due to the effort required. The resellers have very little prospect of winning new business from the completion, so nobody is winning here. With each reseller being within a gnats breath of each other with airtime pricing, the only incentive I would have to move to a new provider is if I was receiving very bad service from my current provider. My advice for any organisation who might be setting up satellite communications for the very first time is to ensure you get the right provider from the start. This way, pain will be avoided in the future.

The other big frustration is that each time we change a SIM card, the phone number changes as well.   

Whilst the technology is brilliant, the account management side of the operation needs to improve and it’s the big networks like Inmarsat, Iridium and Thuraya which needs to fix things. We need each network to simply set up a system where organisations can migrate from one provider to another without the need to swap SIM cards and change phone numbers. Lessons can be learnt from the cellular telecoms industry as in some countries there are systems in place for people to retain the same number if the move from one provider to the next. The system could be as simple as the old provider giving the client an authorisation code to migrate the SIM and phone number to the new provider. The activity stays on the same network so should be achievable. What I am not asking for is the ability to swap numbers between different networks as this is certainly not needed and technically unfeasible.  

Conclusion
The satellite communications get full marks from me for recent service and technology innovation, but I am now calling on the networks to provide a reliable account migration system so that we can turn the world of portable satellite communications into a truly competitive market place.  

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Exploring GIS and data collection.

“GIS” is a term used very frequently within the humanitarian sector and stands for Geographical Information System. For many, this conjures up the image of very complicated IT systems. GIS can be a very complex science as it’s the place where maps and big data will meet. In this article, I n this article, I am going to put the potlight on GIS as a concept and explain what GIS is all about. I will also point you in the direction of resources where you can try out GIS for yourself.

GIS is not new
osMaps have been in existence for centuries and defined in some dictionaries as “A representation of the earth’s surface or part of it” Maps are more complex than this definition as they go well beyond simple aerial photographs. When drawn in graphical form such as the UK map (left), information can be added about the features. Contours show how steep the hills are, the red shade shows land which belongs to the army and dangerous to enter. Symbols are used to identify items of interest such as a public telephone. A map is therefore graphical information in its own right. Before the computer age, the Graphical Information  System would possibly have been a filing cabinet of information which would be used by map makers to make up the maps such as the ordnance survey maps used in the UK.air map

 Maps such as ordnance survey are made for mass production and often referred to as base maps. There are many specialists professions who require specific information to be added to maps .The Aviation industry is a good example where information regarding flight paths,  no-fly zones and airfield approaches are overlaid onto standard maps so that pilots can find their way around.

 

How technology disrupted map making
Specialist maps which contain additional information have mainly been limited to certain professions and would have been expensive to produce due to short print runs. The process of adding additional and new information would be a combination using ink to write new information onto a map, and a method to provide feedback to the original mapmaker so that new information could be included in the next edition of the map. Advances in printing technology and computerised mesriapping systems has enabled maps containing very customised information to be produced on demand.  Large format printers and GIS software has brought the art of mapmaking from the large map makers straight to places where maps will be used. One prime example of where maps are needed in a hurry is during disaster relief.

ESRI is one of the worlds leaving GIS systems and provides software either as an online system or as software loaded directly on a computer.

GIS in actionnargis map
A good GIS system will have a collection of base maps to which data can be added. Any form of data can be added to maps to be represented as graphical information. In large scale emergency responses, organisations such as MapAction will often deploy GIS volunteers from the mapping industry to create the many maps which will be required as part of the response.   

Let’s look at an example;

 In 2008, Cyclone Nargis passed through SW Myanmar and affected the population in the delta. MapAction used a combination of satellite imagery and aerial photography to produce the map of the affected areas. The map to the left shows the areas affected by flood (illustrated by red shade) and the path of the cyclone (blue line).

In any emergency the initial maps will display basic information about what damage has been done and what populations have been affected. This information is vital for emergency response organisations as they will be able to use the maps to make decisions about where relief efforts need to be focused.

As the response develops, coordination bodies such as UN OCHA, national and local government will require “WWW” information (Who is providing assistance, Where they are working and What services they provide).

Data can be a challenge
The key challenge faced by map makers is the wide range of data formats people use for different purposes. The basic data about who is doing what and where, is normally the starting point a later on, other people will begin to collect monitoring and evaluation data which can also be used to build maps.

 Whilst ESRI’s ArcGIS products have emerged almost as the industry standard tool to create maps, in the same was as Microsoft Word is the system of choice to create documents, the journey towards identifying a suite of tools for collecting data is still being made. Data collection is recognised as an issue and each year, new initiatives are launched to solve the issue. The problem is that many of these initiatives are looking at the same set of issues. I feel that it would be more fruitful if the various organisations looking at data collection could start to work together in order to define a new standard for data collection and create a suite of tools to collect it?

Does ESRI have the solution?
Amongst the many data collection initiatives ESRI launched a new smartphone application to collect data. The app is available for android and apple smartphones collectorand tablets. The new app is called “Collector for ARGIS” and can be configured with forms to collect information for ARCGIS maps. This new app was launched using lessons learnt by ESRI during the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

The screenshots below shows a form used to collect information about damage to properties and how families were affected by an Earth quake. If the smartphone is online, the data is immediately sent to ESRI servers for so that people can see the most up to date situation as data is collected by people on the ground. The apps also work offline and will store data until the field teams reach a place where they can connect to the internet and upload data

Try it for yourself
GIS is the place where data meets mapping. ESRI is often considered as the “Swiss Army Knife” of GIS systems has it has so many tools available.  Argis Online (http://www.esri.com/software/arcgis/arcgisonline), is an internet resource where it’s possible for people to create their own maps and share them with others. Anyone can sign up with a Public account which allows people to create basic maps. Public accounts have limited features but it’s possible to create maps and manually overlay text and shapes. A fully featured account includes many data tools. It’s possible to explore the advance functions by signing up for a 60 day trial. In the example below, a map has been created which shows expected radio coverage from two radio stations.

chad map

Conclusion
Whilst GIS is a well-established discipline with ESRI considered as the leading system, there remains some challenges around the task of collecting data. I would like to think that the new ArcGIS collector is showing some promise and as it is designed by ESRI, the prospect of a standard turnkey system which collects data and produces the same maps will make the art of GIS a lot more efficient. ESRI has a global footprint of resources which means that support is available in most places and in many languages. There is also a massive amount of online training materials to support ESRI products – much of it free of charge.

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