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Digging It! Streaming Video in Mining and Offshore Exploration

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The desire to explore the world, both the easily accessible and wildly inaccessible, is a natural human trait. Some of us dream of finding an unknown place, others enjoy studying ancient ruins, and still others are compelled to explore and extract hidden treasures.

While there’s often concern about exploitation of natural resources, especially at the expense of locals caught between their goods and a global marketplace, the continual extraction of oil and ore—from coal to copper to diamonds and other rare elements—from the depths of either the earth or the oceans is a part of what makes modern society run.

New technologies aid in the discovery of everything from oil reserves to salt deposits, revealing not only what was once unknown but making extraction both less laborious and more profitable.

Yet, despite all the technologies we have on hand, exploration in subterranean mines or deep-sea settings can be quite dangerous. It’s a danger that’s been with us for hundreds of years, probably as long as humans have had shovels, ropes, and boats.

In my Streams of Thought column in this issue, I mentioned that part of my teen years were spent listening to ballads of exploration, loss, and tragedy. (Yes, it was a great childhood, thank you very much.) One song in particular stuck out enough to make me start following a Celtic band closely. It’s a story of a woman standing on a desolate and wild ocean’s edge, with the “spray strung like jewels in her hair” as she laments the sea’s murder of her lover. She’d been waiting patiently for his return, but as the song’s chorus says, “his boat sailed out on Wednesday morning, and it’s feared she’s gone down with all hands.”

Silly Wizard wrote and recorded the Scottish ballad The Fisherman’s Song / Lament for the Fisherman’s Wife about an era when sea-going vessels still had masts and sails:

There’s a school on the hill / Where the sons of dead fathers / Are led towards tempests and gales / Where their God-given wings / Are clipped close to their bodies / And their eyes are bound-’round with ships’ sails.

The final verse sums up what this article is about—streaming in unsafe or treacherous conditions.

What force leads a man / To a life filled with danger / High on seas or a mile underground? / It’s when need is his master / And poverty’s no stranger / And there’s no other work to be found.

In this article, we’ll explore streaming in mining and off-shore exploration, where it’s used to save lives and to explore the unknown

One terminology note, though, before we begin. The term “streaming” in the mining business actually has a completely different meaning. Sometimes referred to as metal streaming, this business approach—purchasing a section of a mine or a whole mine for an upfront payment, and then “streaming” royalties for a fixed percentage or price as ore or precious metals are extracted—has grown in popularity over the past few years. If any financial types are reading this article, be aware that we’re referring to audio and video streaming here, not metal streaming.

Crisis Response

Many of the video streaming products and services used in mining and off-shore exploration have been marketed with ominous phrases: IncidentShare, intrinsically safe cameras, explosion-proof devices.

The reason for that may be much more about past experience than marketing hype.

After a number of incidents in 2009 and 2010, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) formed a global response group, which its website, OilSpillResponseProject.org, notes is “tasked with identifying learning opportunities related to both incident causation and response” to spills.

One of the learnings from this global response group explains how remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) integrate with both streams and metadata. According to a document from the Oil Spill Response Project, the encoder “receives the direct optical/analog camera feed from the ROV,” converting the video and rebroadcasting it over the network. “This is valuable for transmitting video over satellite so that operations can be monitored from a remote command center or control room. ... transcoding allows additional data to be converted to different formats with additional data added to the video. An example of this is the injection of GPS coordinate data into the video and rebroadcasting the video over H.265 instead of H.264. Transcoders can be used onshore to create a compatible mobile video output in 3GP.”

Oceaneering’s Mark Stevens, who serves as the company’s digital innovation director, wrote about the need for video streams in an article a few years ago that highlighted the positive nature of streaming video after an oil well blowout.

“Never was the value of live video images delivered from offshore operations more powerfully illustrated than during the Macondo well blowout in 2010,” wrote Stevens. “Transmitted continuously for more than three months from approximately 5,000 feet below sea level, the live video stream was viewed by 20 million people daily and played a pivotal role in everything from crisis response and management to how policy and public opinion were formed during and after the incident.”

But are there more uses for streaming than just to document a mining accident “a mile underground” or that distance below the ocean’s surface? That’s the topic I wanted to re-explore in this month’s article.

Rugged Gear for Rugged Terrain

When I first approached this topic several years ago, I looked at a few ruggedized solutions that were essentially waterproof casings enveloping typical portable encoding solutions. One in particular, referenced in a 2013 article about oil rig incident streaming systems, was Pixavi.

“Our products and solutions are made for a specific use case in a niche market—EX and ATEX certified electronics for use in hazardous and explosive environments on oil and gas installations,” says Andreas Parr Bjørnsund, project manager for Pixavi AS, based in Stavanger, Norway, in an interview for that article. “To be even more precise, our cameras are certified for both Zone 1 and Zone 2 environments, which [are] the most hazardous areas you find.”

Pixavi now markets what looks, from the outside, like a fancy Flip camera. The Gravity X offers 1080p and an 8-megapixel image capture, but its biggest selling points are that it has a glove-compatible touch screen and can be used in low light and darkness while sporting a sunlight-readable display. And, according to Pixavi, it can be used to “take high quality images where no other cameras are allowed” in those Zone 1 and Zone 2 environments.

Speaking of darkness, there have been stories of other streaming technologies that were used for light-challenged rescue operations. For instance, the cameras used to communicate with and, ultimately, to aid in the rescue of the 33 trapped Chilean miners, have been upgraded to even sturdier housings and more robust specifications.

For those who might not recall details around those trapped miners—immortalized in the 2015 blockbuster movie The 33—the views of the miners’ living conditions more than 700 meters underground were facilitated by streaming cameras.

A Vivotek FD8134 camera was lowered down to the miners, according to a Vivotek press release that coincided with the movie’s U.S. release. The camera was lowered “through a small tube providing real-time surveillance while supplying video feeds to multiple points.” Using an integrated infrared (IR) illuminator, the camera was able to “provide the rescue team and the media with clear footage of the miners living conditions, despite the lack of light.”

Updated versions of the same camera, now known as the FD9371-EHTV, come in a 3-megapixel version able to withstand operating temperatures ranging from -50°C to 50°C. It now has a remote focus functionality as a way to deal with varying scenarios in which this type of camera would be used.

Looking at the 2018 variants of these products, one might feel positively retrograde, as minimalism rules the day. Gone are the waterproof covers that shielded the portable encoder buttons from ocean spray or other liquids. In fact, the buttons are gone completely, too.

All that’s left exposed on what are, quite literally, monolithic black boxes are a few waterproof connectors: Bayonet Neill-Concelman (BNC) connectors for analog or digital video inputs, a power connector, and—assuming that an integrated Wi-Fi chipset isn’t providing connectivity—one or several reverse SNC antenna couplers.

Incendium is a Danish company that makes products that work in various harsh environments and rugged terrains, and those products show the heritage of industrial devices designed to operate in these situations. Its cloud-based IndicentShare platform focuses mainly on police, fire, rescue, and other dangerous situations.

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