Cellphone-delivered video becomes eye of the storm

Jan 14, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Though equipment being used to cover the war in Afghanistan has received a lot of attention these days, similar technology has been used for some time here at home to cover a different threat.
TV stations in Oklahoma, Texas and other tornado-prone areas have relied on satellite phone- and cellphone-based video transmission equipment for more than 10 years to deliver the initial images of storms, though recently upgraded equipment has allowed for faster transmission and more editing capabilities.
KOCO-TV and KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City use technology from FoNet in Tulsa, Okla., to deliver up-to-the-minute weather images. The equipment is essentially a computer with an interface that allows the user to edit and view the video frames captured on camera. The computer connects the camera to either a cellphone a satellite phone to transmit the pictures back to the station.
The images are sent as individual frames, not as video, and then a “movie loop” is created at the station, said Bob Ablah, VP of engineering and operations at KFOR. “When you are a youngster and flip through a deck of cards real fast and it looks like they are moving, that’s what [this technology] is like today,” he said.
The pictures usually air within two to three minutes of shooting at about five to 10 frames per second on KFOR, compared with 30 frames per second for standard video. The station refers to the initial storm images as “First Video.” Such technology is essential during storm season, Mr. Ablah said.
“It enables us to get the information to the viewer very quickly from locations we otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach because of microwave range,” he said.
Tornadoes develop so fast that the weather phenomena rarely afford a news station the luxury of transmitting the pictures back in conventional fashion through a satellite or microwave truck, said Mike Morgan, KFOR’s chief meteorologist. Most storms are in rural areas, and storm chasers in trucks race down back roads at 70 miles an hour trying to capture video.
In such instances, transmitting video through a cellphone is probably the best bet, said Jeff Piotrowski, a free-lance photographer in Tulsa who creates documentaries on storms for Storm Productions.
The FoNet equipment costs $2,500, said Mitch Freeman, VP, research and development, for FoNet. The current system allows camera crews to edit and scroll through images on the computer interface while the pictures are being transferred from the camera to the computer. “Because it’s highly time-critical, they can edit on the fly. You are usually shooting at the same time you are sending,” he said.
KOCO airs still images of storms, billed as “First Pix,” but expects to loop the images later this year, said David Evans, director of engineering for KOCO. The station relies on cellphones to connect with the FoNet device. In most of the rural locations where the weather is developing, the images are sent via analog transmission because cellphones usually revert to the analog roam mode.
Most of KFOR’s storm video is delivered via a satellite phone that connects to the FoNet device. In those cases, rather than use a traditional satellite truck, the crew has a satellite dish perched atop a truck it uses for chasing storms. The advantage of satellite transmission is that coverage is almost ubiquitous, but the bandwidth is limited and transmission rates are slow, Mr. Morgan said.
Mr. Ablah said he expects KFOR will implement improvements to the technology within a year that will enable nearly full-motion video, similar to how news reports from Afghanistan are transmitted. The storm-chasing technology, whether via satellite or cellphone, is sort of like a poor man’s satellite videophone, said Roger Herring, director of broadcast operations at KTUL-TV in Tulsa, which uses cellphone-based video transmission equipment.
“I’d say it’s like duct tape in quality, but it’s the only technology we have to get the picture, and because it’s breaking news, it’s important to have,” he said.