Cover Story: Portable Earth Stations: Antennas To Go

By | May 1, 2003 | Cover Story, Telecom

In today’s ever-changing world, portable earth stations continue to gain popularity among satellite users. Whether for news crews, emergency aid workers, troops or businesses/institutions needing fast on-the-ground connectivity, portable earth stations are a logical, speedy solution.

Not surprisingly, satellite equipment manufacturers are capitalizing on this demand by offering a wealth of innovative, complete portable product solutions. Here are some of them, as seen at SATELLITE 2003, in marketing brochures and product demos, held in Washington, DC, February 26-28.

Earth Stations Go To War

At show time, the situation in Iraq was heating up. Hence, it was no surprise to see military-oriented portable earth stations on the show floor. One such product was the Tactical Multi-band Satellite Terminal (T-MST), built by ITT Industries.

The T-MST is a HMMWV (Hummer) mounted satellite system that can be configured to uplink to C- Ku-, X- and military Ka-band satellites. All of its earth station controls are housed behind fold-up panels on either side of the T-MST’s equipment module. Meanwhile, on top of its roof sits a fold-down satellite antenna, while the driver and operator work inside the Hummer’s pickup-style cab.

As for toughness the T-MST can operate in temperatures ranging from -20 degreesC to +49 degreesC, in line with MIL-STD-810F. Meanwhile, this MTMCTEA-certified truck can drive on and off fixed-wing transports, be airlifted by helicopter, tie down to either rail cars or barges, and yes, drive itself to and from whatever location its capabilities are needed. In short, ITT’s T-MST is one portable earth station for today’s wide-ranging military deployments.

Of course, having mobile satellite communications on the battlefield is of little use, if enemy jamming prevents signals from getting through. Hence the reason for the SMART-T (Secure Mobile Antijam Reliable Tactical Terminal), manufactured by Raytheon. Designed as part of a U.S. Army-led project, Raytheon says the SMART-T provides robust, jam- resistant, reliable multi-channel communications for field commanders, all carried on a Hummer platform. But that is not all: beyond providing solid satellite links, the SMART-T allows the U.S. military to extend its mobile radio communications beyond the horizon, ensuring connectivity during breakout situations. Finally, the SMART-T can also be removed from the Hummer for field deployment. Amazingly, a single soldier can accomplish breakdown and set-up in 20 minutes each time, according to Raytheon.

Antennas To Go

With war comes rapid movement for both soldiers and news media, plus advancement into battle-ravaged areas lacking decent communications. For these situations, portable "antennas to go" are a must, especially those that fit easily onto commercial aircraft.

As luck would have it, AvL Technologies makes a line of small, foldable mobile antennas for satellite newsgathering (SNG) and mobile VSAT applications, including a Flyaway and Fly&Drive system. The diameters range in size from .75-meters up to 2.4-meters.

What caught this reporter’s eye at SATELLITE 2003, however, was AvL Technologies’ Roto-Lok Cable Drive System. In plain English, the Roto-Lok is a motor-driven satellite antenna mount. Put it on a vehicle, attach the antenna, then use the Roto-Lok to steer the antenna to the right direction and elevation to locate the satellite. According to AvL Technologies, the Roto-Lok has virtually no backlash, or at least six to 10 times less backlash than a conventional gear-driven positioner does. The reason: the Roto-Lok uses stainless steel aircraft cables to steer the mount. Wrapped around vertical and horizontal drums beneath and on either side of the mounting cradle, the cables move by being wound onto or off a capstan, which is driven by a centrally-mounted motor. The result is a very smooth motion that eliminates the backlash associated with gear drives.

Comtech Antenna Systems also comes to mind when "antennas to go" are on the menu. The company’s 1.2-meter and 1.8-meter Quick Deployable Antennas offer just that. Simply remove the antenna from its two shipping cases. Stand the cases on their long edges, connect one end and attach a supplied support bar to the other two end edges to create a triangle structure. Mount the antenna to this structure–there are fittings supplied–connect to a receiver or transceiver, and you are on air. Comtech also makes a 2.4-meter flyaway antenna that fits into six aircraft baggage-checkable cases, plus 2.8-meter and 5.0-meter transportable antennas that can be erected by one person.

Another "antenna to go" alternative is Microwave Radio Communication’s Advent Mantis 105KA Ku-band flyaway antenna. Apparently named for its 1.05-meter diameter, the 105KA mounts right on top of its own carrying case. Meanwhile, the Advent NewSwift 120KMA Ku-band antenna is a fold-up with its own attached base. At 1.2-meters in diameter, this antenna’s options include a GPS-based auto satellite acquisition for fast set-up.

Microwave Radio Communications also highlighted its 1.0-meter and 1.4-meter Ku-band antennas at SATELLITE 2003. These can be fixed directly onto vehicles, or set up within minutes using a quick-deploy tripod mount.

Two cases. That is all it takes to transport the new Norsat SecureLink portable earth station. The SecureLink offers MPEG-2 DVB-S video quality via satellite (between 2 and 6 Mbs). According to Norsat, the SecureLink can be set up on its collapsible tripod in less than 15 minutes. It uses GPS-based software to allow quick, precise satellite alignment. The SecureLink can also be used for data or voice, including Voice over IP. It even comes with Secure Encryption options to foil eavesdroppers.

Hit The Road, Jack

Not all portable earth stations are in boxes. Some come with wheels, engines and even CD players attached.

ND Satcom AG offers a wide selection of portable earth stations. The most compact is the webSNG. It is an antenna-equipped acquisitions van that supports popular IP streaming formats such as Quick Time, Real Player and Windows Media Player. Meanwhile, the compactSNG is based on the same Mercedes Vito van platform. It provides broadcasters with a compact mobile uplink for broadcast video feeds. The classic SNG features a fold-down rooftop antenna and the ability to package and uplink both analog and digital video feeds. And, for budget-minded broadcasters, the ND Satcom Drive and Fly package features a dual use satellite broadcast system: install the antenna/transmitter in a van for DSNG work, or remove it, pack it and send it off as a conventional flyaway.

Frontline Communications Corp. is another important player in rolling earth stations. Its mobile satellite platforms can be found in vehicles ranging from utility trucks and Ford E-350 vans to heavy-duty Freightliner satellite trucks.

Wolf Coach –now an L3 company–was also on site at SATELLITE 2003. Notable for offering a wide range of mobile earth stations, mounted in everything from SUVs to full-sized trucks and buses, Wolf Coach’s lineup includes television broadcast, military uplinks and first response vehicles. As well, Wolf Coach started to build the Naval Research Labs’ InfraLynx interoperable radio platform. InfraLynx is designed to let incompatible public safety radio networks talk to each other through a telephone-style switch and communicate to remote locations via satellite. Wolf Coach also has configured a number of mobile earth station platforms for the emerging Homeland Defense sector.

Finally, IDB Systems highlighted its flyaway and transportable satellite earth stations. Taking center stage was IDB Systems’ new Satellite Communications Utility Vehicle (SCUV) 1000. Built inside a conventional van, the SCUV 1000 provides secure two-way video, voice and data communications via satellite, thanks to the encryption solutions sold with this vehicle. IDB Systems also provides cellular phone transmission and a built-in telephone switch as options for the SCUV 1000.

A Suitcase Full Of Satellites

For SNG crews, portability is everything. Sometimes when chaos breaks loose, there is just no time to grab a complete earth station and go.

For these situations, Global Communications Solutions’ suitcase-based earth stations are worth a closer look. For instance, the GCS-7520 Talking Head Videophone uses Inmarsat ISDN satellite channels to support two-way videoconferencing at speeds up to 128 kbs. Not exactly broadcast quality, to be sure, but more than good enough for situations when being there and being seen counts most. The GCS-7520 also allows the mixing of microphone and incoming line sources; the unit even has a built-in adjustable 6.4-inch TFT color screen and Inmarsat satellite telephone.

For eye-catching video communications, Scotty Tele-Transport Corp. offers its Scotty Mobile solution. Housed in a bright yellow plastic-shelled suitcase, the Scotty Mobile features a built-in color video camera, LCD monitor, H.320/H323 videoconferencing software, microphone, digital video recording and even an integrated industrial PC. The Scotty Mobile has inputs/outputs for video cameras, audio, microphones, video recorders and document cameras. It can be linked to Inmarsat, VSAT, satellite telephone or landlines.

The ViewCase Secure Transportable Video Teleconferencing (VTC) System is yet another earth station in a suitcase. Within its hardened black plastic shell is a Polycom ViewStation V.35 codec and software, plus a 15 inch LCD display screen and integrated speakers. The Secure Transportable VTC System can support secure voice, video and data to speeds ranging from 56 kbs to 768 kbs. It has a built-in bay for a KIV-7 encryption device, and offers multiple inputs/outputs for cameras, monitors and other devices. Best yet, the Secure Transportable VTC System is small enough to fit in an aircraft overhead bin, or under the seat.

Vocality International bills its LiveLink portable videoconferencing terminal as "the world’s only operationally Waterproof H.320 Video Communication System." This suitcase unit supports full motion video and audio transmission over satellite and terrestrial lines. It can also handle data transfer, auto-answer and local/far end camera control. The LiveLink includes a built-in LCD monitor, inputs/outputs and a membrane-style control keyboard.

Call Me When You Get There

Sometimes when you are in the middle of nowhere, all you want to do is make a telephone call. For such people, Landsea Systems sells Thrane and Thrane Inmarsat telephone products such as the TT-3080A Capsat Messenger Portable M4, and the TT-3008B/D/E Compact M4s. In a nutshell: the TT-3080A Mobile M4 offers high-speed fax, data and ISDN data at 64 kbs, using either a tri-fold or frame-mount antenna. The TT-3008B/DE Compact M4, which are variants of the TT-3080A, offer the same data rates in a very small unit. The TT-3008B comes with a large dish antenna, the TT-3008D with a small dish antenna, and the TT-3008E with a vehicular antenna that works at speeds up to 70 mph/110 kph.

The Nera World Communicator, offered through Mackay Communications, was this company’s flag-bearer at SATELLITE 2003. Based on an integrated Inmarsat transceiver/three-panel antenna, the World Communicator delivers up to 64 kbs data, voice and video over satellite and up to 128 kbs when two units are linked together. Its versatility lends itself to applications ranging from live remote media broadcasts to secure government communications. The World Communicator is also available with MPDS (Mobile Packet Data Service) for e- mail and Web browsing, thus decreasing airtime costs by charging only for actual data transmission instead of total connect time. It is a good-looking, yet tough solution for wireless, portable earth station connectivity, which can be operational in less than 10 minutes.

Plenty To Choose From

If walking the floor at SATELLITE 2003 taught me anything, it is that there are lots of portable earth station solutions available for all kinds of uses, and all kinds of budgets. It also alerted me to the creativity and savvy vendors are showing in tackling this sector, not just by going after the growing milsat market, but also by coming up with the products people need. The bottom line is that the portable earth station market is alive and well when it comes to the creation and support of smart products.

James Careless is senior contributing editor for Via Satellite magazine.

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