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Microplex Web Cameras

Provided by Microplex Systems Ltd of Burnaby, BC, Canada, the Web Cameras enable visitors to the Web Site to see the progress of ThrustSSC as it happens.

Microplex Network Eye Frame Server

The access levels against this Web Site during the early trials of ThrustSSC on the runway at Farnborough, and the first high-speed trails on the Jafr Desert in Jordan proved that the watching Internet audience had a huge craving for up-to-date information about the project. Webmaster Jeremy Davey did his level best with online articles covering every major event - and a number of the minor ones - and the Runs Database giving right-up-to-date information about the runs as they happened. However, the reality was that the site's visitors wanted to see what was happening for themselves - as it happened.

The obvious answer was to install Web Cameras that could give live information from a number of different vantage points, and to make the cameras visible across the satellite link to the UK. A number of particular requirements had to be met. The cameras and associated equipment would have to be:

  1. Compact to be used in tight environments without getting in the way
  2. Robust and reliable to take the inevitable battering they would receive in the harsh engineering environments
  3. Able to withstand the heat of the Jordanian sun at high noon
  4. Capable of handling a wide range of illumination levels, from dark workshops to intense sunlight - with assisting filtering if necessary
  5. Capable of simple and quick attachment to a computer network

Webmaster Jeremy Davey adjusting the Desert Web Camera on the Pit Station Roof
(Webmaster Jeremy Davey adjusting the Desert Web Camera on the Pit Station Roof. Photo: Nick Chapman. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

The answer came in an approach from Microplex, who contacted Jeremy with the suggestion of running one of their "Network Eyes" in the Aireshelta during Jordan operations.

The cameras are standard Connectix Colour QuickCams. Commonly used for video-conferencing, these cameras are intended to be plugged into a standard PC parallel port. In order to turn this low-cost device into a Web Camera, Microplex have developed the Network Eye/270 and Network Eye/270-Colour - with connections for a QuickCam and a network, they make the camera images available to anyone on that network through common Internet browsers.

The first camera was installed for trial purposes in ThrustSSC's workshop at P8.R Shed at the Defence Research Agency, Farnborough, and proved instantly popular. Although Network Eye frame servers do support direct access to the cameras from the Internet, the decision was taken to copy the picture to the Web Site every 15 minutes to avoid saturating the limited bandwidth of the satellite link with accesses to the camera. Hence viewers around the world see a copy of the Web Camera picture, with the copy replaced by a fresh one four times an hour. The watching audience see everything from engine changes to painting of the panels from the camera placed high on a gantry overlooking ThrustSSC.

The Pit Station Web Camera
(The Pit Station Web Camera. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

During operations in the overseas deserts three cameras are used. The first is the easiest to install - mounted high in a corner of the communications room in the Pit Station. Mounted on a ball-head previously used to support the in-cockpit video camera in ThrustSSC, the camera can be adjusted to show the communications room where this Web Site is built, or the entire computer room from where operations are controlled. This camera is connected directly to the Pit Station's shielded 10Base-T computer network.

The Desert Web Camera
(The Desert Web Camera. The Digital box below contains the RoamAbout transmitter for the Aireshelta camera. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

The second Web Camera is mounted on the roof of the Pit Station, looking out over the desert. Again it is connected via shielded cable to the computer network - to avoid interference from the frequent radio transmissions. In this case external sockets are provided in the Pit Station's under-floor lockers to connect the camera - along with mains power, compressed air and telephone lines. This camera caused some concern when it was first erected in Jordan - Jeremy had not reckoned on light intensities in the early afternoon that were simply off the scale of the lightmeter at over 100,000 lux. While the camera has a wide-ranging automatic exposure compensation, it simply could not handle such intensities - intensities which were causing some team members to feel the first effects of snow-blindness. A photochromatic filter was added, which cut light levels at the brightest part of the day by 80%. This proved insufficient, however, and a 4x Neutral Density filter was required as well - giving a peak light transmission of only 5% of the actual light outside. To protect the camera and Network Eye from the heat, dust (and possible rain!), the camera is mounted inside a plastic casing coated in reflective silver tape, and with a clear face.

The Aireshelta Web Camera
(The Aireshelta Web Camera. On the box below are the Network Eye and RoamAbout Access Point. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

The third Web Camera is perhaps the most interesting, and is the one originally suggested by Microplex's Julia Coleman. Mounted on a tripod in the Aireshelta, it shows work underway on the car when it is not being run on the high-speed track. This camera posed a number of difficulties, too - while a very long network cable could be run from the Aireshelta to the Pit Station's external sockets, it would be extremely prone to damage from vehicles, equipment and people. In addition, every time there was a need to move the camera, the cable run would have to be re-done. The ideal solution was found in Digital's RoamAbout wireless network equipment. An 'Access Point' attached to the Network Eye communicates with a similar device mounted on the roof of the Pit Station and attached to the network - giving a secure data connection which is free from accidental damage, and which can be moved around quickly and easily as operational requirements dictate.

The Hughes satellite dish in front of the Pit Station containing its controlling electronics
(The Hughes satellite dish in front of the Pit Station containing its controlling electronics. Photo: Jeremy Davey. Image taken with a Fujifilm DS-515A Digital Card Camera)

The final link for all three Web Cameras is the Hughes satellite link. Providing a data bridge between the network in the Pit Station in Jordan or Nevada, and the Web Servers in Newbury, England, it enables the fascinating pictures to be available 24 hours a day to a watching, waiting world.

As the images are automatically updated, a few situations may occur that prevent ThrustSSC from being seen:

Now why not take a look through our Web Cameras.

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