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Digging It! Streaming Video in Mining and Offshore Exploration

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The Incendium encoder series falls under the Stream Pack name. The most popular unit from Incendium is the Stream Pack Mini, which is about the size of a large flask. It’s not much to look at, but under the generic black surface is a fairly robust encoding solution housed in a crushproof and waterproof shell. Attach a few antennae and put the unit in a canvas harness, and you’ve got what looks like something the radio comm grunt on G.I. Joe might carry around.

Internally, though, the Stream Pack is packed with options. These black-box solutions stream via multiple bonded connection types, across multiple carriers—from 3G and 4G to LTE cellular connections, as well as satellite uplinks and local fiber or Wi-Fi connections—to create a reliable broadband video uplink.

These solutions range from less-expensive single or dual connections all the way up to five bonded cellular and satellite connections.

Why would an encoding unit need this many options?

The main reason is the uncertainty of connection signals in any corner of the globe. After all, if there are large parts of the continental United States still not covered by terrestrial cell service, it stands to reason that parts of the North Sea or Indian Ocean won’t have many connectivity options.

Low Data Rates, Middling Latency

This need to connect in any way possible also manifests itself in a need to stream in the lowest data rate possible. And that’s opening the door for a number of newer encoding formats. One that seems to be getting traction in the remote location world of oceanic exploration is High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC or H.265).

While we tend to think of H.265 as a replacement for Advanced Video Coding (AVC or H.264) on the upper end of resolutions (e.g., 1080p60 or even UltraHD 4K), it seems that a number of the solutions in the mining and drilling space are moving to H.265 for ingest for a completely different reason—higher-quality video at ridiculously low data rates.

Both Incendium and Oceaneering mentioned the use of H.265 encoding in remote-operated vehicles for data rates between 50Kpbs and 500Kbps. Yes, you read that right, 50 kilobits per second.

Oceaneering, which won a Spotlight on New Technology award for its battery-operated, autonomous E-ROV at the 2018 Offshore Technology Conference, has described incidents where there was a need for more than 100 live video feeds being sent to the customer from a fleet of more than two dozen ROVs.

With up to six cameras on a single ROV, there’s as much need to compress video to transmit to the surface as there is to transmit beyond the surface vessel (or, in the case of the E-ROV, the 4G connection point at the surface buoy, which allows the E-ROV to operate without having a surface vessel directly on site).

According to Oceaneering’s Stevens, this growing number of video streams requires “high-performance H.265 video compression technology to double image resolution as compared to earlier formats at the same 50 kilobit-per-second (Kbps) stream speed of the typical offshore environment.”

In an email interview, Incendium’s sales and marketing manager Asger Plæhn explained the benefit of H.265: “Due to our H.265 video encoders we can compress video signal and stream it over a very low amount of available bandwidth. We actually both stream the digital and the analogue (black/white) video simultaneously.”

Plæhn notes that, for most ROV units, the analog video feed “only needs to be sent in 1[Mbps] (H.264) which then is about 500[Kbps] in H.265.

“If you also want to send the digital output then you need about 1–2[Mbps],” says Plæhn, adding that, for customer types in oil and gas exploration or even command and control, there is “no need to have broadcast-quality streams. They only need ‘good enough’ which, for most part, in digital is about 1–1.5Mbps in H.265, equivalent to 3–3.5Mbps in H.264.

“Some of the ROVs with the highest video output only have 720p,” said Plæhn. “So adding more megabits won't make the video quality better.”

Vivotek, the company whose fixed-dome camera was used during the rescue the 33 Chilean miners, has also moved to H.265 for its newest cameras. The 3-megapixel FD9371-EHTV, mentioned above, “adopts the latest H.265 video compression technology with Vivotek’s Smart Stream II technology,” according to a company press release.

But what about latency? It turns out that latency isn’t quite as important as one would think whether you’re underground or underwater.

“It’s a bonded RTSP stream, and we have approximately 1–2 seconds of delay for all sites,” says Incendium’s Plæhn of the Stream Pack solutions. “We convert the H.265 to H.264 on the server in order for the customers to see it on the app and web. Converting the stream does add a small extra latency, but it’s within an acceptable limit for our customers. And if you’re using satellite connection compared to 3G/4G [cellular bonded], that will also add an extra latency.”

Incendium does have an interesting urban project worth noting, though. The company recently announced integration of the Stream Pack encoders into 18 fire trucks being delivered to the Copenhagen Fire Department in late 2018 or early 2019. The unit, which will provide a local Wi-Fi hotspot for first responders, makes use of “a light telescoping mast” integrated into the firetruck. Along with the Wi-Fi hotspot, the mast has a “centrally integrated full color day and night pan-tilt-zoom camera which can be remotely operated by the command center” to better coordinate emergency response.

Broadening the Horizon

Despite all the ballads and stories I’ve shared throughout this article, centering on destruction and loss in mines or on the ocean, the use of streaming video for these market verticals isn’t all about crisis management.

Oceaneering, for instance, is beefing up the personnel in its Global Data Solutions team, posting a job opening earlier this year for an Offshore Communications Specialist with duties and responsibilities to “configure, test and troubleshoot various video solutions using h.264 and h.265” as well as networking and communications equipment such as routers, switchers, and radio transmitters. Of course, it goes without saying that some travel would be required, as the job posting notes the applicant should have the “ability to travel to onshore/offshore domestic and International to project sites on last minute notice as required to ensure successful project completion.”

Incendium has been branching out into oil exploration projects, and the company’s cloud-based transcoding and server solution—coupled with its rugged Stream Pack encoders, mentioned above—were recently used for exploratory drilling in a very large oil repository off the Norwegian coast.

“The drilling assignment was finalized during December 2017,” says Plæhn, referring to an ambitious project where Norwegian-based energy company Statoil is working in the Johan Sverdrup field, in the harsh environment of the Norwegian continental shelf. The Sverdrup field is one of the five largest fields, and the oil reservoir is at a staggering 1,980 meters below sea level.

The task of providing eyes for the drilling project fell to Blom Fiskeoppdrett, a Norwegian fish-breeding company that uses ROVs for seafarm inspections.

“Blom is a customer of Incendium,” said Plæhn. “Blom own the ROV which was used during the drilling and have bought a Incendium Stream Pack Mini which was used to stream the live video to both the oil rig operator and simultaneously back to shore.”

Since there is rarely any significant light below 200 meters, Blom provided an ROV with light and camera support to monitor the work at 300 meters.

“The point of view from the ROV is vital,” Incendium noted in a blog post about the project. “It gives the drill bit and rig site operators a direct indication of when the bit gets through the seabed. If the drill bit is not stopped in time, it will continue out of its casing—and it will be extremely difficult to get it back in place at 300 meters below sea level.”

When streaming meets mining, underground or offshore, it’s not just “drill baby drill” but also “stream baby stream.”

[This article appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Digging It!"]

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