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Widening the scope of emergency communications


The development of a rapidly deployable interoperable communication system for future public safety is becoming increasingly important in today’s world. For any disaster relief operation requiring multinational efforts and rapid deployment a recently tested prototype communications network offers hope.

Fresh from a recent successful test-run of its system, the IST-funded project WIDENS has succeeded in developing a prototype network that could be quickly deployed in areas where there is no available communication infrastructure to support emergency or peacekeeping operations.

“There is a clear need for such a system,” remarks Dr Vania Conan, project coordinator for WIDENS. “In emergency and disaster relief applications, there is a demand for using video-images and cameras to help monitor the operations – for instance, infrared cameras mounted on the helmets of firefighters. Although more of an extreme case, rapid deployment of a communications infrastructure – after a large scale earthquake or flood for example – is not possible with present technology,” he says.

He noted that emergency crews currently use cellular-based digital communications that require a backbone network and provide limited throughput over long distances. The WIDENS network, by contrast, is composed of ‘terminodes’ – versatile software-defined radio communication nodes with mixed enhanced handset terminal and IP Router features for greater throughput.

“WIDENS complements existing systems with high bandwidth (2Mbit/s) over a dedicated emergency area of a few square kilometres,” he explains. “Higher throughput means the possibility to exchange large amounts of sensor data such as images for telemedicine applications, or to use video-surveillance. WIDENS is also straightforward to deploy in the field as there is no need to install any specific equipment such as aerials. The network sets up automatically.”

Versatility is one of the primary strengths of the WIDENS system. For instance, the network can be used as a standalone system to provide communications in remote regions while being connected to backbone network and/or command and control centres via satellite or airborne platforms. WIDENS is also designed to serve as a ‘healing overlay network’ for areas where there is a lack of network capacity to support emergency-related traffic or in areas where the communication infrastructure has been destroyed.

The recent field trial of the system in Sophia Antipolis, France, was a resounding success, according to Conan. “Our goal was to validate the WIDENS design on real equipment – in this case five Linux laptops with a PCMCIA card for the air interface,” he said. “Over 40 people attended the day-long demonstration, including public safety users and telecommunication industries. The users were very eager to see a new version of the system that they would be able to try out for themselves,” he adds.

The trial successfully demonstrated the viability of the system for multi-hop relaying for voice communication, as well as high throughput for live video surveillance, interconnection with the Internet, and fleet monitoring control room application and authentication of nodes to prevent IP spoofing.

Although WIDENS has broadly met its initial objectives, there remains some technical fine-tuning to allow the system to reach its full dynamic potential, says Conen. And while there is little doubt about the long-term commercial viability of the ad hoc network, some standardisation issues remain to be worked out first.

“The standardisation activities of systems such as WIDENS is carried out within project MESA, a transatlantic initiative for future public safety broadband communication systems. Commercial exploitation of WIDENS results will follow the MESA roadmap. MESA is currently defining an umbrella architecture for broadband public safety systems that will open new markets in the coming years,” he says.

The project will shortly upload its software developments on the website, enabling the open-source community to run the full stack and emulate the WIDENS network on standard Linux PCs.

Tara Morris | alfa
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