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RTS Intercom System Links Texas A&M to Nautilus Researchers Uncovering the Secrets of the Seas

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November 5, 2013
It’s long been observed that the surface of the oceans hides mysteries nearly as great as those of the cosmos. But the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET) is dedicated to revealing much of what lies below. OET is directed by oceanographer and marine archeologist Dr. Robert Ballard, who famously found the shipwrecks not only of the Titanic but also the Bismarck, the Yorktown and PT-109. Ballard is also a professor at the University of Rhode Island (URI) in Kingston, and an important part of his group’s mission is to inspire interest in the field of ocean exploration by sharing OET’s discoveries with the world. With that goal in mind, the group’s primary research vessel, the 200-foot E/V Nautilus, is equipped for live telepresence, integrating extensive real-time audio and video capture and transmission capabilities that allow researchers to participate with the OET team without being physically on board. Having recently established an Exploration Command Center at its Galveston campus, Texas A&M University joins over twenty other educational and research organizations that use RTS intercom and voice over IP (VoIP) gear to link to OET’s Nautilus-based programs.

RTS intercom systems have played a key role on the E/V Nautilus for nearly a decade, enabling not only on-ship production but also real-time ship-to-shore communications and interaction. The core of the OET communications system is a pair of RTS ADAM frames, one on the Nautilus and the other at a command center at URI. Each frame is equipped with RVON (RTS Voice Over Network) interfaces allowing analog intercom signals to be digitized for transmission over IP networks. Onboard the ship, a Telex BTR-800 wireless intercom system and several models of RTS intercom keypanels at various locations — dry bay, wet room, lab, production control, ROV operations, etc. — are all connected to the ship’s ADAM CS frame. Meanwhile, the educational facilities that participate in remote Nautilus links each have RTS KP-32 intercom keypanels with RVON-1 interface cards, which connect over the Internet back to the ADAM at URI. Communications between the ADAM frames at URI and on the ship are transmitted via satellite. Round-trip transmission times from any point in the network are under two seconds.

The networked RTS systems are used in both the pre-production and production stages of Nautilus-originated programming. In pre-production, voice traffic from the ship’s science staff at the various keypanel-equipped stations is routed to staff at URI to confirm audio quality. At production time, URI will route ship-board feeds (video, audio and data) onto the Internet2 (I2) network, and participating institutions will connect to IP addresses provided by URI, at which point Dr. Ballard and the shipboard scientists will conduct a live presentation or question and answer session.

“The ease of use of the KP-32 and the accessibility of communication channels at the touch of a button has made it easy for our researchers to use the system without any issues,” says John Kovacevich, director of information services at Texas A&M’s Galveston campus (TAMUG). Kovacevich was responsible for enabling the connection between the campus and the Nautilus for a recent exploration of a 200-year-old shipwreck about 150 miles off Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico. “Setting up the system was easy: just specify an IP address, clear it through the firewall, and then test it. It worked wonderfully throughout the archaeological expedition, and our research team enjoyed the experience immensely.”

Kovacevich also points to another positive aspect of the new system, which was the technical support from RTS. “We had some after-hours questions when the system first arrived,” he recalls, “so we sent an email to RTS system engineer Michael Brown. He called back immediately to answer our questions and he was very helpful. I cannot thank him enough for the excellent customer support he gave us. And Diane Talamas of TALAMAS Audio & Video was also very helpful. We were under a tight deadline to get everything in and on line, and with everyone’s help we made the deadline and the equipment worked flawlessly.”

In addition to TAMUG, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also participated in the Galveston shipwreck exploration. “The new equipment worked fabulously!” said William E. Kiene, Ph.D, of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in a letter of thanks to participants. “Since there are already discussions about going back to the shipwreck site — there are now three ships to explore! — and other live broadcasts from Okeanos Explorer and Nautilus are ongoing or in the works, the Command Center will surely attract scientists and students to the TAMUG campus for future missions and will prove to be a valuable investment for research and education.”

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