Raytheon, Satellite Radio Firms Partner in Disaster Relief Communications Tool

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Raytheon Co. is trying to generate interest from the U.S. and other governments in a disaster response and warning system that would utilize commercial digital satellite radio channels.

The company has teamed with satellite radio operators WorldSpace and XM Satellite Radio, both of Washington, on a project called Mobile Enhanced Situational Awareness (MESA), which would enable relief workers to receive critical, up-to-date information in areas where the communications infrastructure has been knocked out or is otherwise unavailable.

A prototype of the system was used early this year by relief workers responding to the December tsunami that devastated parts of Asia , according to Michael Fleenor, program manager for networked communications systems at Raytheon Network Centric Systems in Fullerton, Calif. In that instance, WorldSpace donated satellite-channel capacity and compatible radios to nongovernmental response teams, he said.

The MESA system consists of a Raytheon central control facility that would receive, process and broadcast information via selected channels over the WorldSpace and XM satellite fleets. WorldSpace operates radio satellites serving Africa and Asia, while XM’s satellite radio service is available in the United States and Canada.

The service center can archive information and includes a recording studio for the quick development of new broadcasts, according to MESA marketing materials provided by Raytheon .

Raytheon developed the system with internal funding, said Fleenor, who declined to be more specific . The company began working on the MESA project about a year ago, but accelerated the activity after the tsunami struck , he said.

Tsunami relief workers equipped with WorldSpace radios were able to receive vital information such as instructions on water-purification techniques, said Patricia Perlini, a Raytheon spokeswoman.

The MESA system is capable of broadcasting audio and text messages; imagery derived from satellites and other sources; maps and other information, according to the Raytheon literature. The channels can be programmed with filters so that certain information can be targeted to specific workers or a specific area, Perlini said.

The system could download information to specially modified laptop and hand-held computers , Fleenor said. This would enable users to create precise maps on the spot using recently taken satellite imagery and GPS positioning information, he said. Such a capability would be particularly useful in the aftermath of major terrain-altering natural disasters, he added.

In addition to supporting relief efforts, the MESA system could be used to broadcast warnings of severe storms in disaster-prone areas. Receivers for such warnings could be located in public gathering places such as beaches and hotel lobbies, Fleenor said.

Other potential markets for the MESA service are military operations and homeland security, Fleenor said. The Associated Press reported June 27 that the system was utilized in a Pentagon exercise called the Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration, which ran from June 13 through June 23 .

A key military application for the MESA system is tracking friendly forces on the battlefield, Fleenor said. The military in recent years has deployed a variety of so-called blue force tracking devices that use GPS receivers and satellite radios to keep commanders apprised of troop locations. These devices, which relay information via satellites, have been credited with cutting down on incidents of friendly fire, also known as fratricide.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also could use the MESA system to better coordinate emergency responses, Fleenor said.

One potential homeland-security application would be in response to the crash of a train carrying tanks of chemicals that are toxic or could explode if mixed, Fleenor said. In such instances, emergency workers could use MESA-compatible hand-held computers to receive information about wind conditions that could blow toxic clouds into surrounding areas and to plan evacuation routes, he said.

Chance Patterson, a spokesman for XM Radio, said it is too early to tell how much revenue may be generated for XM through MESA contracts.

“It’s an interesting way to use our platform in a different way than the core satellite radio service,” Patterson said.