As the yachts race round the world, all their communications – what in the quaint days of a few years back would have been called signals – will come back to race headquarters in Southampton. This is the centre of a state of the art communications system that is costing BT as much as GBP5 million.
It’s on the top floor of a BT office block here that all the drama will unfold: routine messages and forecasts, and daily position reports from each day’s duty yachts will all come through an operations room here. This is also the central depot, as it were, for all the reports, e-mails and video stills for the media, and the ability to send these from anywhere in the world represents the biggest technical advance of this race.
Here, race HQ manager John Keating and a team of three race officers keep watch 24 hours a day, seven days a week, monitoring what information is going to, and coming from, the yachts. Their most important job is the safety of the fleet at sea. Should an emergency arise, they are the ones who will be informed first and will have to take appropriate action.
All the safety information comes in by satellite, Sat C to be precise. State of the art in the first of the Challenge races, this is now relatively old-fashioned technology, but also relatively cheap, reliable and with worldwide coverage. “It has been proven on two races and the power consumption is low, so it can be left on all the time,” adds John Keating.
Race HQ will also use this information to send out fleet messages such as daily weather forecasts. The system on the boats has an in-built GPS so latitude and longitude, plus information such as wind speed, direction and heading (what is termed telemetry) can be polled automatically from each yacht every six hours. This information is posted up on the BT Global Challenge website, www.btchallenge.com or distributed by fax or voice poll telephone lines. But while this information is available publicly ashore, the yachts probably won’t have sufficient browsing time to see it on board, so race followers will have more detail about what’s going on within the fleet than individual crews will do.
What is state of the art this time is the Sat B equipment and software: this digital link transmits much faster, at 64kps. Crews have a communications suite on board and a number of video cameras and digital stills cameras to capture the action. From this material they can edit packages of video and send them back to Southampton to be distributed to TV companies, internet sites and sponsors. The system also allows crews access to the internet. Each yacht is being allocated 30 minutes of browsing time per week, an allowance that will almost certainly be dedicated to browsing weather forecast sites.
By comparison, e-mails are small files and can be queued and then bundled with other larger files being transmitted to Southampton. This means that e-mails from the boats to race HQ, or indeed to private e-mails from the crews, are virtually unlimited. “We are our own internet service provider,” is how John Keating puts it. “The boats are our clients.”
The system at Southampton can handle transmissions from up to eight yachts at a time. If the satellite link is lost midway through transmission, because the yacht had to tack, for example, the upload resumes at the same point in the transfer when the link is re-established.
BT engineers have developed all the software associated with these especially for the race. Even the on board e-mail, which looks identical to Microsoft Outlook, is in fact custom-made for the crews. “It looks like Outlook, so it’s familiar, but that is just a front; everything behind it is bespoke and written specially by BT Martlesham,” says Keating. He adds that the development of the software alone has taken a team of engineers two years.
In addition, each of the yachts has a Mobiq Sat M ‘payphone’ on board. Incoming calls are barred, but crews can buy charge cards