Cellphones, computers help tsunami relief effort

Everyday technology such as mobile phones and laptops is being deployed by the Australian Defence Force to help communication in tsunami-stricken Papua New Guinea. Department of Defence special adviser Tom Worthington says it's 'a fairly recent idea: instead of taking truckloads of computer equipment, lots of telex machines, fax machines and and things like that, communications people take laptop computers and briefcase-size satellite dishes which they can just carry around by hand."

Everyday technology such as mobile phones and laptops is being deployed by the Australian Defence Force to help communication in tsunami-stricken Papua New Guinea.

Department of Defence special adviser Tom Worthington, in New Zealand to speak at an electronic document management conference, says the technology was first used in an exercise — called Tandem Thrust — in March last year, and was used in a real-life situation during the PNG drought aid relief operation (Operation Sierra) in late 1997 to early 1998.

“It’s a fairly recent idea: instead of taking truckloads of computer equipment, lots of telex machines, fax machines and and things like that, communications people take laptop computers and briefcase-size satellite dishes which they can just carry around by hand.”

They set it up along with a small video camera and the commanding officer of the deployed force can then talk to his superiors back at the headquarters in Australia.

“Normally with something major and important, someone from the military operation would have to travel back to talk to the bosses.”

Now they can sit at a computer screen with a video camera on a laptop and “look the general in the eye” at remote headquarters, and explain what the situation is.

During Operation Sierra, it was the first time a LAN had been used operationally, enabling defence staff in PNG to dial back to Brisbane and exchange email. About $A500,000 worth of equipment was deployed, including 20 laptops, two servers, printers and the “moveable” LAN.

In addition to saving time and money, Worthington says there is less chance for misunderstandings because people are speaking face to face. If other people need to be filled in on the situation, email can be forwarded as required.

The PNG drought relief operation used Imarsat satellites — the marine international satellite network. The ability to deploy the technology in this way has been enabled because the size of such technology — including mobile phones and laptops — has shrunk.

“With satellites, a few years ago you had to have a thing that was carried on a truck. The compression algorithms for compressing the data, and particularly for the voice and video have been getting better, so you can squeeze more things down a small link.”

Worthington says the military is very conservative because technology it relies on must be able to work 24 hours a day in bad conditions.

He says that after the Tandem Thrust exercise, the consensus was that the idea was good, but something more compact and affordable was needed.

“A few weeks later they bought the laptops and tried them out and then it was, like, ‘Okay, that works — you’re deploying [to PNG]’.”

During the PNG drought operation “off-the-shelf computers” and “ordinary Internet software” were used.

“Of course, we added military-grade encryption to protect the information.”

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