The truck features satellite, bonded-cellular and WiFi communications, as well as two-way radios for local emergency services.
HUNTSVILLE, Ala.—In the spring of 2011, the state of Alabama was hit by one of the most powerful tornado outbreaks in its history. With violent winds, dangerous hail and flash flooding, the outbreak spawned 62 tornados, 39 of which hit the Huntsville Forecast area.
In its wake, this record-breaking storm left statewide devastation resulting in tragic loss of life (248 deaths statewide), and thousands left injured or homeless. It also caused widespread power outages and impaired Internet and cellular communications for nearly a week.
In the aftermath, Huntsville officials vowed to be prepared for any future event that would enable first responders to communicate with the outside world when the power is out or cell towers are down. Many townships maintain an event response communications vehicle or ERC-V, (pronounced ERK-vee) for this purpose.
“Whenever an ERC-V rolls out, it’s usually because something bad has happened. Otherwise, it’s a very expensive vehicle that just sits idle until the next adverse event or mock drill,” said Jonathan Crowe, video operations manager for Huntsville ETV, an educational television service of the Huntsville city schools.
A NOVEL IDEA
Although it’s difficult to justify buying or building a dedicated ERC-V that often just sits in a parking lot, Crowe shared a great idea at a managers meeting.
“We’ve been planning to build a live video production truck to produce educational programming for our public schools and cover special events like high school football games and theater events,” he said. “What if we merge these two goals—the live video truck and the ERC-V—into a single, multi-purpose vehicle that we can build relatively inexpensively using emerging, cutting edge technology?”
Crowe got the go-ahead and Huntsville’s unique dual-purpose ERC-V was born.
Keith Ward (left), communications director for Huntsville Schools, directs a graduation ceremony using the TriCaster control surface, while Jonathan Crowe, video operations manager, controls robocams and switches the TriCaster’s M/E buses on an iPad.
Crowe hit the ground running on this new project because he was already familiar with several key systems that would be ideal for this dual-purpose truck.
To serve as a live video production unit and emergency response communications vehicle rolled into one, the truck would need to be able to transmit digital video and data in good times and in bad.
The Huntsville Schools’ ERC-V relies on three communications systems: Ka-band satellite gear, bonded cellular and Wi-Fi. Since no communications system is infallible, having three different ways to establish network connections increases the likelihood of having connectivity during severe weather or power outages.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Since the ERC-V is based on a Nissan NV-3500 truck, it has enough interior space for three or four workstation consoles. With 11 feet of external rooftop clearance, there’s enough headroom for people to stand up and move inside the truck.
On the roof, there’s a ViaSat Exede Enterprise 1.2-meter Ka-band (auto acquisition) satellite antenna. With its two-way, high-speed Internet access, this vehicle-mounted terminal from AVL Technologies is a popular choice for law enforcement and emergency response. A WiFi antenna and some two-way radio antennas for security and police radios are also mounted on the rooftop.
The truck has wide range of video-processing gear that’s been mounted in racks, including the Streambox 9200 HD/SD encoder that converts the HD-SDI program signal into IP for live streaming.
The truck also carries four HD broadcast cameras, two of which are JVC GY-HM750CHU ProHD studio/field cameras that are manned, and two Sony BRCH700 pan/tilt/zoom robotic HD cameras with image stabilization that are used for fixed wide and beauty shots.
The JVC cameras are stabilized by Miller tripods that support up to 22 pounds, specifically the Miller 1643 Solo DV Alloy tripod with a Miller DS-20 fluid head, camera plate, and pan arm.
The interior is fairly spacious and easily accommodates two people at the operating console.
Camera operators use NuComm/RF Central MicroLite MPEG-4 COFDM HD wireless microwave transmission systems to transmit high-quality camera signals at distances greater than one mile with line of sight, and without any picture break-up or pixilation. They also use Clear-Com DX121 wireless intercom gear.
Since fiber’s already been laid at the Huntsville City School Stadium, where all seven of the public high schools play football and other sports, the truck simply plugs into a patch panel outside the building to access the fiber infrastructure.
In his previous position as the chief engineer for the Huntsville ABC affiliate WAAY-TV Channel 31, Crowe installed a NewTek TriCaster multicamera video production system to serve the station’s news operation. Based on that experience, he chose a TriCaster 460 for the ERC-V.
TriCaster integrates the functionality of a hi-def TV studio control room into an affordable and compact system. And it gives a single operator creative control over every aspect of the live show, including video and audio sources, virtual mix/effects channels, graphics, keys, digital media players, multi-viewer monitoring, virtual set capability and more.
Audio mixing is performed using a Shure SCM820 eight-channel digital IntelliMix Automatic Mixer with digital feedback reduction. It features eight active-balanced mic or line-level inputs and eight dedicated balanced direct outputs.
There’s also a smaller TriCaster 410 that can be taken to remotes in a Pelican case. A large TriCaster multiviewer monitor is visible from all the workspaces.
“With TriCaster, everything we need is in one box, including live switching, clip playback, recording, instant replay, an intuitive user interface and more. The TriCaster lived up to our expectations, and NewTek continually adds to its functionality with every update,” Crowe said. “For us, there’s nothing else that really rivals the TriCaster.”
As a PEG (public, education and government) operation, ETV got its start broadcasting four analog television channels via microwave to Huntsville public schools in the late 1960s.
With today’s digital video compression and file-based workflows, ETV now broadcasts 10 channels over digital microwave that can only be viewed on monitors or computer screens within school buildings.
Besides educational programming for the schools, ETV also produces a cable access channel for the community. ETV programs are produced at its studio facility, on the ERC-V, or by third-party sources. A TriCaster 860, which has a dedicated control panel, is used in the control room to switch the studio cameras, chromakey graphics and video into a green screen behind the talent.
Three of the programs regularly produced there are “News and Views,” a topical magazine-style show about current events in the Huntsville City Schools; “Up Close,” featuring interviews with public school personnel and administrators; and “Talk Supe,” which features interviews with the superintendent of schools on events and issues impacting Huntsville City Schools.
An exterior connector panel makes it easy to plug into pre-wired sports facilities.
Huntsville’s ERC-V, which is owned and operated by the Huntsville City Schools, was also designed and assembled by Huntsville City Schools’ students and personnel. In fact, students in the Advanced Manufacturing curriculum designed and crafted several custom parts for the truck, including a roof rack and an A/V patch panel. They actually printed the A/V patch panel using a 3D printer.
“I’m very proud of what we were able to accomplish in designing and building this truck,” Crowe said. “I can definitely see this as a trend that other cities might do, especially from the standpoint of the capital investment being put to work rather than just sitting idle waiting for an adverse event to occur.”
“Before the ERC-V, when cellular networks were congested or damaged, we were unplugged from the world,” Crowe said. “You couldn’t make a cell phone call or send a text, let alone surf the Internet. That’s why we designed the ERC-V with redundant, failover transmission paths to ensure reliable communications.”
The Ka-band technology at the heart of the ERC-V gives the truck a broadband Internet connection via satellite that complements the bonded cellular service. With ETV’s ViaSat Excede service, they have two-way IP connections for video and data, higher upload and download transmission speeds and greater versatility compared to other satellite options. And rather than having to arrange for satellite time, this system auto-acquires the satellite, making set-up a breeze.
“Paying for data on the Ka feed is less expensive than booking traditional satellite time, plus it’s a two-way data connection, so much more can be done than just a standard live shot,” Crowe said.
The truck’s bonded cellular system aggregates the bandwidth from two modems (for Verizon and AT&T respectively) to form one channel capable of transmitting live, compressed digital video signals. With bonded cellular, it’s possible to transmit live video from within a moving vehicle.
The truck’s networking flexibility is enabled by a Peplink Max HD2 router with dual embedded 4G LTE cellular modems and SpeedFusion bandwidth bonding. Crowe said that it handles all routing, cell bonding, satellite connections and failovers, among other tasks. It also allows for setting priorities based on available connections, the fastest connection, and other connectivity options.
“We gave a great deal of thought as to how the truck’s video signals would be routed to the networks,” Crowe said. “Once the satellite is acquired, we use the bonded cellular as our main output path. Then, if the cellular bandwidth drops below a certain benchmark we’ve set, it automatically fails-over to the satellite.”
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It’s also often used the other way too, with the cellular left on while they’re mobile, then switching to satellite once they’re settled and stationary. If someone only wants to use satellite transmission, there’s an Ethernet cable that plugs in to establish a hard-wired connection to the satellite service. The truck is configured such that the cellular and satellite services—and each data connection—can be accessed independently via either wired or wireless means.
With 23,000 students attending Huntsville public schools, there’s always a football game, school play or other special event to cover. Since the ERC-V is the live video production truck for this vibrant school system, it rarely sits idle.
However, whenever police, fire or emergency management officials need the vehicle, it’s immediately available to them. With its on-board IP connectivity, first responders can access and share information with the outside world. They can also log into virtual private networks (VPNs) to access security cameras, such as the school surveillance systems, to monitor activities inside certain buildings without leaving the truck.
“It’s a data-driven, network-driven world,” Crowe said. “That’s why we designed the ERC-V with the latest IP networking and video production technology, making it the truck of our dreams.
“With the advent of Ka-band and bonded cellular technology, the ERC-V is far more powerful and far less expensive than anything we could’ve built even a few years ago. That’s helped bring the overall cost of owning a state-of-the-art ERC-V into an affordable range.
“Considering the high-quality live programming we’re able to stream and broadcast, this truck has become a vital link between our school system and community. It’s not only proven to be very cost-effective, it’s also a valuable resource that can promote better public safety.”