Lesson number one of covering the war in Iraq is that an advancing army waits for no one: including embedded reporters doing their standups. Keeping up with the troops has many of the embedded TV reporters relying on videophones, sending jittery video to viewers at 64kB per second.
Many, but not all. NBC News is blazing a new trail in transmission. Two developments, the "Bloomobile," named after correspondent David Bloom, and a new digital satellite newsgathering system, are the results of NBC engineers who worked closely with manufacturers to gear up for war coverage.
Of the two, the Bloomobile has garnered the most attention. The complex transmission system allows David Bloom and cameraman Craig White to send broadcast-quality video from Iraq back to New York. His reports from the 3rd Infantry were sent back to NBC via a Ford pick-up truck outfitted with a rate-sensor servo-stabilized antenna. GPS devices located on the truck ensure the antenna is locked onto the satellite allowing images to be transmitted by the vehicle while it's moving at speeds as fast as 50 mph.
"The gear is holding up," says Stacy Brady, NBC's vice president of network news operations. "The sand is incredible and getting into everything but we haven't had too many things break."
The hunt for good images began when Bloom and White first became aware of gap between what they could do and what they wanted to do while when they first met with the infantry unit last December.
"It was very apparent that we could not be in a position to have to stop to broadcast," says Bloom. "We had to find a way to do this and at NBC it became one of those situations where if there is a will, there is a way."
NBC contacted Maritime Telecommunications Network (MTN), a company it had worked with on aircraft carrier-based transmission systems. Those systems are designed to maintain a satellite signal on moving vessels in rough seas so the network thought the system could be modified for land use.
"NBC called us on a Thursday afternoon and by Monday we had a more thorough drawing and a rough price," says MTN chief technology officer Richard Hadsall.
Hadsall worked on various configurations before outfitting a Ford F450 truck with the transmission gear and putting it into field trials. The vehicle was sent to Kuwait in early March where additional modifications were made to the stabilized custom bed. Tank tracks proved to be the bumpiest off-road challenge as high-frequency vibrations could build and shake the 1.2-meter dish from its mounting.
A Wescam stabilizing camera is was mounted to the personnel carrier that Bloom traveled in and a COFDM antenna sent the video to the trailing MTN transmission truck which, in turn, sends it to the satellite.
The Bloomobile wasn't NBC's first Iraq-related first creation. Earlier this year, the network worked on a new DSNG system for videophones.
"When videophones were introduced I kept looking at them thinking there had to be something better but not as big as conventional flyaways," says Brady, who contacted high tech firms Raytheon, Tandberg and Vocality to design the a better version. (B&C, Feb. 24). Vocality technology allowed multiplexing the videophones from 64kBps to 128, effectively combining bandwidth to build a bigger pipe. (The technology, now offered with a flat antenna or the dish NBC is using for now, will be displayed by Tandberg at the upcoming NAB convention, beginning April 7).
Brady right now finds herself dealing with more than just technology. More important are the engineers in the field.