Navigating the Unmanned Underwater Systems (UUS) ISR Challenge on Terra Firma

16 September 2021

ROVs are unoccupied, manoeuvrable units designed for ISR capabilities in underwater areas. They can take many shapes and sizes – from boxy cages with robotic arms, to underwater submersibles that resemble a submarine – and can serve a range of purposes. They are tethered to a host ship via an umbilical cable, allowing for remote operation via a direct connection. Examples of this work could be carried out on structures, such as underwater cables requiring attention, or ISR exploration of terrain.

VITEC has partnered with a large organisation in Europe which provides underwater roving equipment and manned support services. The organisation has a division which manufactures ROVs.  In this latest project, instead of an ROV being controlled directly from a host ship, ultra-low latency technology beams footage back to the onshore command centre, allowing vehicles to be piloted remotely on dry land, maximising the time efficiency of a skilled worker, and saving considerable expense. In this case, the operator pilot is based in another European country. To carry out such a solution, real-time high-definition ISR video feeds providing up-to-date feedback on proceedings are vital.

The Low Latency Imperative

Whilst ROVs do not move quickly, anyone who has tried to control a machine when there is a latency issue knows how problematic this can be – take a sluggish computer making mouse control difficult for example, or a poor internet connection on an online video game creating noticeable delay between the input of a player and the outcome of the game. When the stakes are so high and precision is key, it is critical that delay is minimised. A high-definition feed is also especially important for ISR work, enabling pilots to make informed decisions and pass on vital observations.

A total of five separate video feeds are provided to the pilot and commanders, one of which is delivered via its MGW ACE Encoder for its front-facing camera, delivering an ultra-low latency video stream. The encoder is based on the ship and is connected to a video baseband cable which goes through the umbilical cable. The encoder – which compresses video into efficient, high-quality data packets, including stanag4609 compliant metadata – connects to a satellite link which beams to a land-based pod, where the operator has multiple video screens to view the footage and access to a series of controls for manoeuvring the vehicle. The feed is currently in Full HD resolution, but there is scope for upgrading to 4K if required later. The system works much like an UAS in its remote operation.

Additional cameras offer different viewpoints transmitted using VITEC’s MGW Diamond encoder – a small unit providing 4 channels – and are transmitted in the same way. These are used primarily for recording purposes, as well as to provide a different perspective in real-time. All video streams can also be disseminated to other commands or coalition partners around the world.

The Remote Payoff

The solution means that personnel do not have to be moved from location to location, saving on travel around the world, enabling smaller vessels to be used and allowing systems to be deployed much quicker. Traditionally, a vessel and a ROV would require the need of dedicated personnel to be located on board for a set number of weeks to do analysis. That unit would then have to return to shore, be de-rigged, setup and sent out to another location for its next mission. The technology means that a dedicated ISR operator and backup analysts, can remain in one location, whilst multiple vessels are deployed. This increases productivity and maximises use of marine-grade assets.

The encoding solution also allows bandwidth, image quality and latency to be adjusted to suit different communication profiles, able to adapt for a vessel’s location, the strength of the satellite link and connection. The encoders can be accessed remotely to enable adjustments to be made on shore as required, reducing the need for technical staff to be stationed on the vessel itself.

Meeting the Challenge in All Conditions

The greatest hurdle to overcome in this scenario was the latency; with the mix of five signals over a constrained network, and the need for real-time viewing, it placed considerable demands on encoding technology. The location of the encoders also meant that they were required to work at temperatures down to -10C. The quality and latency provided by the encoders within bandwidth constraints impressed the client and enabled a viable solution to be established.

Different workflows will require different solutions, however. For example, IPTV technology can be used to transport footage from onboard a ship to personnel operating maintenance in other locations, when ultra-low latency is not so necessary. IP distribution gateway technology, such as VITEC’s MGW Channel Link can be used to push video signals to analysts all around the world to share video in real-time.

VITEC technology is utilised in all unmanned environments – not just underwater settings – delivering video from assets such as drones, unmanned surface vehicles and unmanned robots. In all of these unmanned systems, high quality video remains key, allowing human decision makers to perform ISR tasks remotely with the maximum level of visual information possible, with the minimum amount of latency and all in an uninterrupted signal.

VITEC is exhibiting at DSEI London, 14-17th September. Visit stand H6-162 to arrange a demo or for more information

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