USFS Builds Performance Monitoring and Geospatial Reporting Tool to Track Sites
Wednesday, December 05, 2012 | Comments
Photo courtesy Colville National Forest
 
 
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is developing a performance monitoring system for remote electronic sites that will provide a geospatial interface to track site health and trending. Currently the Forest Service has limited tools to measure the health of its more than 1,500 remote electronic sites.
 
Most communications problems are addressed during routine maintenance or after a site failure. The USFS Radio Program within the Chief Information Office (CIO) is working with the USFS Missoula (Mont.) Technology and Development Center (MTDC) to pilot test hardware to monitor performance and create a geospatial repeater performance monitoring and coverage map tool of the remote repeater sites in the national forests.
 
“Over time we expect to save considerable funds related to travel and overtime,” said CIO Land Mobile Radio Program Manager Simon Strickland. “But the main driver is understanding the health of the system for operations.”
 
The project is two pronged. The first part monitors the remote repeater sites. Data is collected on a variety of site characteristics, including the repeater’s performance, local temperature, battery, voltage, line power, strength of signal and other parameters said Andy Trent, MTDC project manager. The second part is providing predicted coverage at each site based on many variables, including the antenna height, antenna strength, type of repeater and terrain.
 
The coverage map and remotely collected data will then be combined to create a geospatial map of the area. Users will be able to predict talk-back coverage, as well as the performance health of the site, which will all be accessible via a website to all USFS employees. A user will be able to click on a particular site and see a drop box with the critical measurements about that site. Strickland compared it to a radar weather map that allows users to examine different variables regarding the weather.
 
The remote monitoring software will inform technicians if something is behaving in a way it shouldn’t. Pre-determined triggers can alarm radio technicians if something gets above or below a designated point or stays too long at a certain point, Strickland said.
 
The geospatial map will give users a clear expectation of coverage in a given area. It will display green if coverage is strong, another color will be used to identify an area that is still functioning but appears to have a weakened signal or other issue, and red will designate no coverage. If a user checks the map and sees red in the coverage area, he can look at the site’s collected data to get an indication of what is wrong.
 
Radio technicians should benefit from the program. Each forest has its own radio technicians who monitor repeater sites. The technicians typically make at least one trip a year, if not more, to a remote site to make sure everything is working properly.
 
Currently if a site goes down there are a number of challenges for the technician. Not only is the failure a surprise, there is no background data for the technician to look at to determine the cause. And because the sites are usually located in remote environments, the repair can take several days. One day might be devoted to determining the cause and collecting the tools needed to fix it, and a second day used to actually fix it.
 
With the sites monitored through the website, technicians will be able to anticipate what might have caused the site to go down and what they need to fix it. With this portal, technicians can check the site remotely, hopefully eliminating unnecessary travel as well as safety concerns.
 
The software can also track trends and improve lifecycle management. Technicians monitoring the site’s health will be aware of when maintenance is needed, hopefully eliminating complete shutdowns of a site.
 
The software will also benefit forest personnel and incident management responders during events that require multijurisdictional help. The coverage predictions will allow all to better anticipate what coverage they will encounter wherever they are going in the forests.
 
In addition to users benefitting from the system, the program also is predicted to have large cost savings benefits, Trent said. When Strickland first purposed remotely monitoring repeaters sites, the initial reaction was that it wasn’t affordable, he said. But after further research, Strickland made the argument that the USFS could not afford not to do it. “We have to do something to understand the health of these remote sites,” he said. “We can’t afford to fly to them to test them; we have to do this remotely.”
 
The measured data is collected at the sites with data loggers. The development team came up with three affordable options for transmitting the collected data to the USFS servers. Some of the sites are already connected to the network via Ethernet, which allows a hard IP connection. The other sites without connectivity send the data to the agency’s servers via cellular and satellite.
 
The main costs associated with the program are the end equipment items that allow for data collection and transmission, including data loggers, satellite, microwave, cellular, measurement devices and network switches, as well as some fees from the satellite and cellular networks, he said.
 
The goal is to have all 1,500 remote repeater sites in USFS forests connected to the portal. In early October the development team installed the first 55 operational sites. “We’re still getting started and working out the kinks,” Trent said. “We’re hoping to have all the data flowing to the prototype website soon.”
 
The 55 sites are spread across the country to ensure both types of network connection — IP network, cellular and satellite technology — are properly working. Forests in Montana, Idaho, Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico all are participating.
 
The plan is to monitor the first 55 sites during the winter, and then depending on the budget, install more data loggers in the summer. The USFS performance monitoring budget for fiscal year 2013 (FY13) is around $500,000, which comes from the modernization budget and varies each year, Strickland said. Every rebuild or upgraded site will hopefully have this monitoring component added in, he said.
 
  
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