Wireless drivers

Combining two different wireless technologies, putting them together for just a few days at a time, and then breaking down the set-up and moving it to another country sounds, at best, a risky undertaking. But this is how the World Rally Championship (WRC) has to operate.

The rally tour starts in Monte Carlo, and takes in Mexico, New Zealand, Argentina, Japan and multiple locations across Europe before finishing in Australia. For each of the teams taking part, the season represents a number of logistical and technical challenges. It is by no means only the drivers that are put to the test.

Increasingly, the WRC teams rely on communications and telematics to gather information on how both the cars and the drivers are performing during the ‘stages’. The data is used to help the maintenance crews service the vehicles, to help drivers and co-drivers improve their techniques, and to help the engineers design improvements for next season’s cars. Telematics also plays an important safety role, with Rally HQ able to send help in minutes if it loses contact with a car.

That this can be done, week in week out, in remote and inaccessible locations is testament to the skills of the teams and the WRC technical staff. Unlike Formula One – which, with the exception of the Monaco Grand Prix, operates on fixed tracks – WRC runs from temporary bases with stages in remote locations. For some rallies, water supplies have to be built. Network infrastructure is usually non-existent. Even in countries with generally good cellular networks, the location and topography of the rallies mean that mobile phones often do not work.

This gap is filled by the WRC’s technical partner, Inmarsat. The satellite telecommunications company provides a number of data links for each rally, including connections on its Global Area Network (GAN) running at 64 kbps (kilo bits per second). These units link the start and finish of each rally stage to rally HQ.

Inmarsat is also deploying its higher-speed ‘regional BGAN’ service during the rallies. This provides speeds of up to 144 kbps and is IP- and Ethernet-based, making connections to PCs and other devices, such as IP phone systems, relatively straightforward.

Although this works well enough in semi-static locations such as the service parks where the teams maintain their cars and rally officials are based during the events, most of the action takes place over large stretches of rural – and usually rugged – terrain. In these circumstances, wireless networking makes sense, and it also enables the event organisers to extend Internet access at the ‘stages’ to spectators and the media, as well as to officials and the teams. However, the nature of the terrain means that conventional access points would not be up to the job.

As a result, Inmarsat is working with a specialist company, Util4, which provides ruggedised wireless LAN access points. The equipment, known as Nomad4, is based around Cisco technology, but housed in strengthened, dust-resistant cases.

Each access point has a range of about 500 metres, using standard WiFi hardware. The range can be extended using repeater stations. In effect this creates a wireless cloud around part of the event, with the Inmarsat equipment providing the back haul to the Internet. The equipment can be set up in as little as an hour. Util4 is working on versions that can run entirely on battery power (Inmarsat’s R-BGAN hardware already runs off batteries).

The hope is that extending Internet access out to the rally stages will add to spectators’ experience of the championships. Unlike Formula One, the WRC is time-trial based. This means that enthusiasts out on the stages may not have much information about the drivers’ relative positions as the cars travel past.

Allowing spectators to connect up their laptops or handheld computers will appeal to enthusiasts. The organisers might also issue wireless handheld computers to VIP guests.

The combination of WiFi and satellite connections could support applications for other sports and events, as well as commercial uses. According to executives at Cisco, the WRC is just one vertical application; others might include shipping and petroleum. But a package of satellite and WiFi connectivity could also be used to bring broadband to farflung rural communities too.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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