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Full throttle with Megahertz

CTO Steve Burgess looks at the challenges for the OB truck builder/integrator – and explains why times have never been busier

There are several OB truck builders in the business – NEP Visions, Arena TV, Gearhouse Broadcast – but it’s systems integrator, Megahertz, who’ve had a particularly busy 12 months, building a host of different vehicles types in the areas of news gathering, national sports coverage and even camel racing. Dave Robinson invited Steve Burgess, CTO at Megahertz, to identify common themes and trends in the market, to talk about the evolution of mobile broadcast units and explain why DSNG trucks are still the content gatherer of choice in the field…

Steve Burgess (pictured): With the increasing variety of different technologies becoming available to transport high quality broadcast media, one would have thought that the market for the traditional Digital Satellite News Gathering vehicle (DSNG) would be diminishing. Certainly, more sites are being served by fibre, which can offer a much lower operating cost than satellite links; and with bonded cellular connectivity, deployment can be faster and simpler. However, nothing can beat the reliability of a satellite link, either as the back up to a high profile event where the main path is via fibre, or in the case where the cellular network coverage is patchy, which could be in built up or in remote areas anywhere in the world.

These factors may help to explain why Megahertz Ltd has delivered more DSNG-type vehicles in the last 12 months than any time in its long history.

Many of the challenges of building DSNGs have remained the same since Megahertz started building these vehicles in the 1990s. Systems Integrators need to be equipment contortionists and possess a professional aptitude in squeezing the maximum amount of kit into a confined space, whilst ensuring the equipment is cool, the operators are warm and that the vehicle is under its gross vehicle weight limit. This is of course, on top of finding the best of breed solutions that meet the broadcaster’s technical, budgetary and future-proofing requirements.

There is no doubt that equipment is getting physically smaller for the same processing power. In the early days, encoders alone would fill 6RU of rack space and now they take up just half of 1RU. The very first OB vehicle we built, for Muslim TV (pictured), comprised of satellite equipment that occupied 46RU; we can now achieve the same functionality in just 2RU.

Of course, technology is now moving quickly away from bespoke hardware processing to IT-based processing; however, off-the-shelf IT equipment isn’t generally designed with mobile broadcast vehicles in mind, so it’s up to systems integrators such as Megahertz to source, test and recommend the most robust and most reliable versions available, as well as mount them in a way that will prolong life expectancy in an environment where endurance for fluctuations in temperature, vibration and humidity levels, from day to day, is critical.

Although broadcast systems are certainly more compact, on the flip-side, as vehicles acquire more safety features, lower emissions and better fuel economy, the chassis generally become heavier with internal systems. This leaves us less payload for technical equipment. In addition, because vehicle manufacturers’ internal systems have become more complex, there are more challenges and considerations to make when it comes to interfacing.

Having long-established relationships with vehicle manufacturers helps manage such interfacing challenges. Such partnerships mean that an integrator can influence design and access crucial technical information freely. For example, Megahertz has achieved Mercedes approved body builder status, warranting direct access to Mercedes’ technical resources and documentation as well as to its vehicle specialists to consult with on specific aspects of the design. Obtaining a status like this also allows us to gain fast approval to modify a vehicle on behalf of a broadcast client.

Over the last 12 months, the team at Megahertz has delivered a wide variety of DSNG vehicles. The low-cost, higher volume end of the market was made up of mostly IP-based shoot/edit VSAT (‘very small aperture terminal’ – a compact satellite station, effectively) based on Mercedes Vito or VW Transporter-sized chassis. Typically, these trucks are designed with a single operator in mind, usually for live breaking news situations; someone who will drive the vehicle, shoot the material, edit and send the package back to base via satellite or bonded cellular.

As the skills of the operator are mainly focused on acquiring and editing the story, rather than the technical operation of the DSNG, smarter technology needs to be built in to the vehicle to make the operation as straightforward as possible. For example, a single button-push can instruct the satellite dish to locate and peak on the satellite and satellite operators back at base can take remote control of the functions of the vehicle from there. The core of these vehicles is IP-based which means that once the media is on the network, it can be sent back to base by the most efficient transport stream available (VSAT, bonded cellular, etc.).

But, traditional, mid-sized and large production DSNG vehicles are still the most popular. Mercedes Sprinter-based vehicles with on-board generator, large satellite dish, enough space for 2-3 people and a small amount of production equipment are commonplace; and those larger production units covering, say, big sporting events or high-profile music festivals are built on vehicles such as the 7,000kg Iveco Daily panel van, or the Mitsubishi Fuso with a box body to accommodate 3-6 cameras, graphics, slow-motion server and separate sound operator.

Of the 36 vehicles by Megahertz over the last 12 months, a couple of the more unusual projects were delivered to the Middle East. We supplied a ‘chase’ car, built for the coverage of camel racing and other sports (pictured). Based on a full-size luxury SUV Mercedes GL500 AMG, which carries both the camera operator and commentator, the vehicle is fitted with a Cineflex stabilized camera on the roof. The main video and audio is linked back to the OB via a 2GHz COFDM transmitter fitted in the rear. The return video to the chase car is via an inexpensive DVB-T transmitter operating at UHF and the communications is via VHF radios.

The requirement for larger bandwidth transmissions, i.e. for UHD/4K, is another emerging trend this year. This is no surprise, seeing as the Cisco Visual Networking Index of June 2016 estimates that by 2020, not only will 40 per cent of installed flat-panel TV sets will be UHD, up from eight per cent in 2015, but UHD (or 4K) IP VoD will account for 21 per cent of global VoD traffic.

In August this year, BT Media & Broadcast hit the road with the first OB vehicle in the UK able to transmit multiple HD and UHD/4K visions via simultaneous fibre and satellite. The vehicle, which primarily covers high-profile sporting events, was designed and assembled by Megahertz. It is capable of transmitting media both through its roof-mounted, Ku-band, satellite antenna and via BT’s own fibre network, which connects over 150 major sports venues and news outlets across the UK. At the IBC show, three visions of live UHD/4K content of two rugby matches were passed through the one vehicle in three different manners over 2 days, one of which involved the use of the new Ericsson HEVC encoder and one of which saw the truck run HEVC over satellite. We believe this was a world first.

TES52 is the second UHD vehicle that Megahertz has delivered to BT Media & Broadcast (pictured inside). These types of UHD projects however have been based on 4 x 3G-SDI interconnections. Single link UHD is possible with 12Gb/s coax or fibre, but the future is definitely IP in this scenario.

Megahertz has also seen increasing requests for IP-based OB vehicles, but it is still early days in terms of vendor technology interoperability. The current landscape is made up of single-manufacturer solutions who have large R&D budgets to develop IP workflow tools rather than the more flexible mix-and-match scenario that is currently the norm around HD-SDI installations. And while video over IP is without a doubt the future of broadcasting, it is still a few years away from being the universal standard.