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ACTIONABLE INTELLIGENCE - Satellite Communications For Emergencies
by Dr. Markus Werner

With sirens blaring, 20 fire engines and ambulances tore into the smoke-covered field at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) outside the village of Wessling, near Munich. One hundred and twenty fire fighters, emergency physicians, and Bavarian Red Cross teams sought and found the dead and injured, gave them emergency first aid where possible, and assessed and classified the extent of their injuries. Classification was based on the triage system of three colors; black for fatalities, red for life-threatening injuries, yellow for the severely wounded, and green for the walking wounded. The injured where conveyed to hospital according to severity of their injuries.

Waiting hospital staff had two great advantages. Before the victims reached them, their patient records had arrived, via the on-site emergency doctors’ PDAs. The hospital could also check, in real time, the exact location of each patient using GPS technology. The combination of both pieces of data meant the hospital could plan patients’ treatment well before their arrival for care.

Both the patient and geo-location information was transmitted by satellite, making the data independent of the local communications infrastructure, which could have been destroyed or disabled by the emergency. All the satellite communications hardware was transported to the smoke-covered site in a single suitcase, carried by one person. The hardware is also available in a rucksack version.

This was, of course, a simulated emergency, designed to test and demonstrate one of the key applications of a new satellite communications system that will help to save lives in real emergency situations.

The demonstration revealed one of the key uses of satellite communications as first-line emergency responders. The technology, which has been developed using EU funding (more on the EU funding later in this article) can also be used in natural disaster situations. This is often where the local telecoms infrastructure has been destroyed, or is non-existent in the first place, and where there is often no contingency for emergencies.

When disaster strikes, such as an earthquake or a tsunami, co-ordinating a response is often hampered by lack of information, or the ability to communicate to emergency services, governments, and aid organizations. Without information about what is needed and where, support can easily become redundant while, conversely, others receive no help at all.

A key use of this new satellite equipment is as a communications’ center, to gather and map information and intelligence about the impact of the disaster, and to direct the recovery effort. The fact that the equipment is small enough to allow a single person to carry and deploy it means communications can be carried into the most hostile of environments: larger and heavier equipment would have taken days to arrive on scene.

The GSM-network can be set up in a matter of minutes, has a range of 700 meters, and anyone within that area using a GSM compatible electronic device—such as a GSM mobile phone, or a BlackBerry can use it in exactly the same way as if the user was in the middle of a city. The network eliminates the need for expensive satellite phones, which is the current available solution during the early stages of a disaster, that can only be used by a single person or organization. The network simplifies the communications process and is an affordable solution.

The technology, developed by WISECOM (Wireless Infrastructure over Satellite for Emergency Communications), a DLR-led project, part-funded by the EU, has the objective of developing rapidly deployable lightweight communications infrastructures for emergency or disaster conditions, in particular following a natural or industrial hazard. The infrastructure is designed to cover immediate needs in the first hours and days, as well as medium to longer term needs, during the recovery and rebuilding phase.

The WISECOM system consists of a ruggedized portable base station for voice and data communication, which is linked via a small satellite terminal to the public telephone network and/or to the Internet. The three main components of the equipment (which weigh a total of around 6kg) are the GSM base station, the industrial PC, and the satellite modem. The equipment is powered by rechargeable Polymer Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) batteries, which provide about three hours of normal usage per charge, and weigh around 2.5 kg; a small 100W petrol (gas) generator can be used for longer-term use.

The satellite communications element of the WISECOM technology has been developed by TriaGnoSys, a leading provider of mobile satellite communications’ solutions, and one of the key partners in the project.

The idea behind the satcoms is to break down the signalling and the data communication between the GSM Base Transceiver Station (BTS), part of the WISECOM equipment, and the Base Station Controller (BSC), which receives the signals from the satellite. The BTS captures the GSM packets, which are then converted into IP packets for satellite transmission by the Terminal Side GSM Server (TSGS). On receipt by the Network Side GSM Server (NSGS), those packets are then converted back to GSM, forwarded to the BSC, and switched to the core network elements.

System Architecture
The TSGS is basically a ruggedized industrial computer running TriaGnoSys’ Mobile GSM Infrastructure software, called TriaMoGis. The software, which has been commercially deployed in the air transport world to allow airline passengers to use their mobile phones during flights, performs the following functions:
  • Satellite bandwidth on demand: the software dynamically requests the required bandwidth in the satellite modem; when no more resource is available, the incoming call will be blocked
  • BSC signalling suppression: TSGS and NSGS collates GSM messages and sends them periodically, to minimize the satellite usage and therefore required bandwidth
  • Codec selection and IP compression: to use the scarce satellite resource most efficiently, the TSGS supports different types of voice codecs to reduce the size of the voice packets. Both GSM full-rate and Adaptive Multirate narrow band (AMR-NB), with rates as low as 4.75 kbps, are supported. Further decrease in the transmission bit rate is achieved by robust IP/UDP/RTP header compression

Other functions such as Quality of Service (QoS) support, GSM BTS automatic control functions, GSM service selection, and network management are also supported. The WISECOM project is co-ordinated by the German Aerospace Centre, DLR. Project partners are TriaGnoSys GmbH, AnsuR Technologies AS, Astrium SAS, Steinbeis Forschungszentrum GmbH, Reach-U Ltd. and Thales Alenia Space. The project is co-funded by the European Union as part of the FP6 IST Programme.

About the author
Dr. Markus Werner is one of the founders of TriaGnoSys and he is responsible for TriaGnoSys’ emergency response and disaster recovery work. He received the Best Paper Award of ITG conference ‘’Mobile Communications’’ in 1993. The co-author of more than 120 publications, including two scientific textbooks and numerous scientific journal papers, Marcus also teaches satellite communications courses for telecommunications professionals.