At the request of the French government, a French industry consortium led by Alcatel Alenia Space has created a 400-kilogram “humanitarian toolbox” that uses terrestrial wireless and high-speed satellite links to deploy video and data communications services to disaster areas.
The Emergesat facility is transported by helicopter or aircraft and installed in the center of a crisis area in which communications lines are either destroyed or nonexistent. The cubical container carries its own gasoline-powered electric generator, a satellite dish and WiFi or WiMax antennas to provide GSM-standard cellular telephone links to phones within a two-kilometer radius of the container.
A prototype of the Emergesat hardware was demonstrated here March 23 at France’s national fire fighters school, known as ENSOSP.
Michel Castellanet, director of applications validation for telecom and defense at Alcatel Alenia Space, said Emergesat is designed to be pre-positioned near regions of potential natural disasters. Once a disaster strikes, it would be flown in. Castellanet said the system needs no maintenance. It can be stored and then deployed immediately without being recalibrated or otherwise prepared.
Alcatel Alenia Space is a backer of the DVB-RCS satellite-broadband technical transmission standard. It is perhaps partly for that reason that Emergesat features a Ku-band antenna rather than a cluster of smaller L-band systems designed to work with the Inmarsat mobile telecommunications satellites.
Operational Emergesat units will be capable of sending data or imagery at speeds of up to 2 megabits per second. Download speed is 10 megabits per second.
Nicole Guedj, a former French minister who conceived of the idea following the December 2004 tsunami in South and Southeast Asia, said the lack of communications in the immediate vicinity of a disaster is the problem Emergesat is designed to solve.
The Katrina flooding in New Orleans showed that even in developed nations, disaster-relief efforts are often slowed by the breakdown of the telecommunications infrastructure. In New Orleans, some rescue agencies that had previously purchased mobile Iridium and Globalstar satellite phones could not use them because the gear had been left unattended for months and the batteries were dead.
Guedj said the prototype will be tested in remote regions of France before a half-dozen operational models are built. One of the first will be tested in French Guiana, a French department in South America that includes villages with no regular communications.
Guedj told a press briefing here that the International Red Cross has requested the use of an Emergesat for experimental purposes. “What we want to do is provide this to as many government and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] as possible, so that the containers are prepositioned in different regions,” Guedj said. “Reducing response time is critical in these situations.”
Emergesat provides enough bandwidth to permit videoconferencing and downloading of maps for aid agencies working in a crisis.
One possible hurdle for Emergesat involves telecommunications regulations. For the system to operate, it will need to secure Ku-band satellite links in a short period of time.
Castellanet said the most logical way to do this would be to process a request through the stricken nation’s telecommunications operator. But these agencies in the most likely disaster areas of the world are not known for quick responses to requests for high-speed, two-way satellite communications.
The recent earthquake in the Kashir region of Pakistan showed that even governments that call for foreign assistance are not always ready to offer full assistance to relief organizations.
Alcatel Alenia Space President Pascale Sourisse said it will be necessary “to resolve all frequency-use issues before a crisis.”
Yannick d’Escatha, president of the French space agency, CNES, which helped develop Emergesat, proposed the creation of an international telecommunications charter for disasters, similar to the existing International Charter on Space and Major Disasters, which speeds Earth observation data to disaster zones free of charge.