High-tech sits behind high-seas drama

Digital video and satellite communications technology is playing a vital role in the PR battle over Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean.

When environmental protesters boarded a Japanese whaling ship in the Southern Ocean, images of the action quickly flashed on the world's TV sets, followed by photos from the Japanese ship after the protesters were taken into custody. Getting these images out is crucial if either side is to win the global PR battle, but doing so can be problematic when you're at sea, thousands of kilometers from the nearest cell phone network or broadband connection.

To solve their problems, both sides take advantage of digital video and photo technology to get the footage, then look to the skies and tap into the global satellite communications network run by London-based Inmarsat. The company specializes in providing voice and data services to maritime vessels and other users at sea, or in remote areas that traditional telecommunications networks don't reach.

On Tuesday, as the protestors approached the Japanese whaling vessel "Yushin Maru 2," a digital video camera was rolling onboard the small inflatable craft sent from the Sea Shepard Conservation Society's ship, "Steve Irwin." The camera caught the moment when two of the conservationists jumped aboard, and within seconds the video was speeding back toward the Steve Irwin on the inflatable.

Once back onboard, the video was fed into a Macbook Pro laptop and edited into a 13M-byte MPEG2 clip that was just 12 seconds long, said Jonny Vasic, a spokesman for the society.

"One of our big tools in these whale wars is these video and digital still cameras. They really help us expose the bad guys," said Vasic.

The clip was then sent via satellite to the society's FTP server and made available to the world's media.

The ship's satellite communications system is a US$35,000 "Sailor Fleet 77" unit that was donated to the society last year by Australia's Bluetongue Brewery. It supports up to 256k bps (bits per second) transmission, although actually getting that speed depends on several factors. In calm seas, a gyro-based mount keeps the antenna pointed at the satellite, but in heavy seas, maintaining a reliable signal can be a problem. Keeping the link gets increasingly difficult as the ship goes further south because the satellite appears very low on the horizon.

"It's about 90 percent reliable," said Vasic.

Crew onboard the "Steve Irwin" are also using the satellite link to attempt to send e-mail to the Japanese ship, in addition to marine-band radio calls, in an attempt to secure the release of their two members, who remain aboard the "Yushin Maru 2."

The Institute of Cetacean Research, the Tokyo-based organization that operates the "Yushin Maru 2," declined to comment on the technology at its disposal, citing security reasons.

"I'm sorry to say, you might be Greenpeace posing as a journalist," said Gabriel Gomez, a spokesman for the group in Tokyo, when contacted by telephone on Thursday.

The systems employed by the Japanese group don't appear as sophisticated. Only a handful of still images from the ship have been released by the group to the media, and they are a relatively low VGA (640 pixels by 480 pixels) resolution. No video has been made available.

The satellite communications technology being employed by the two ships is increasingly being used by media, governmental and relief organizations in remote areas. Earlier this month, Cable News Network (CNN) won a Technology and Engineering Emmy Award for its satellite news gathering system based on Inmarsat's BGAN broadband system. The BGAN system offers a standard IP (Internet Protocol) connection as fast as 492k bps and is small enough that it can be built into a backpack.

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service

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