STE Security Innovation Awards Honorable Mention: The End of the Disconnect

Dec. 10, 2012
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE- Innovative wireless network connects New York Waterway’s ferries for safety, security, ROI and more

After more than 25 years of providing ferry service from New York Harbor, New York Waterway was faced with this pivotal question: How do you protect a fleet of ships and thousands of passengers every year without an Internet connection? In short, company officials realized the answer was “you don’t.”

Throughout the 1800s, ferries were the only way to get to and around Manhattan. As bridges and tunnels were built, ferry transportation faded; however, in 1986, Arthur E. Imperatore and his family rejuvenated the harbor with the launch of the first NY Waterway ferry. Since then, the ferries have carried more than 65 million passengers; but, without being connected, the majority of the ferry operator’s assets and passengers remained in perpetual isolation. That meant ship captains and passengers were very limited in their communication capabilities, especially in the event of an emergency.

In order to get timely information to passengers in the event of an emergency, increase communication with the captain and gain real-time situational awareness of what’s happening in and around the ferries, a high-speed wireless connection from ship-to-shore was needed. But that task was easier said than done in the densely populated Manhattan area — where line of sight issues alone are a nightmare for planning a wide-area wireless network. The ferry operator needed a robust network coverage area that encompassed just about every waterway surrounding Manhattan, with challenges ranging from water to ice, to three major nearby airports, to the constantly changing sites lines and Fresnel zones.

Innovation Overcomes Technological Limitations

Ferries have proven to be an essential source of redundant transit capacity in times of crisis in Manhattan, such as after the 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the regional blackout of August 2003. People around the world best remember the ferries from their role as first responders to the U.S. Airways “Miracle on the Hudson” plane downing in January 2009.

With the safety and security of its passengers that in mind, NY Waterway enlisted the services of Fluidmesh Networks and Pantascene, together with AAS Technologies, to help them design and deploy a state-of-the-art wide-area wireless network and security solution to help improve communication, emergency response and preparedness throughout the ferry fleet.

That the ferries were disconnected from the mainland eventually became unacceptable in terms of risk management; however, the ferry operator’s options were limited. When it comes to technology choices for wide area networks that support mobility, ferry operators have historically only had two choices: cellular or satellite — both of which could not meet NY Waterway’s complex needs. Cellular, for example, cannot come close the ferry operator’s bandwidth requirements, and they have proven unreliable during times of crisis. Satellite, on the other hand, proved to be cost-prohibitive. 

Thus, NY Waterway needed something new and innovative to get their fleet connected. This is where Fluidmesh came to the rescue, as its high-bandwidth private wireless networks products have been deployed by government and commercial organizations for security and Internet connectivity. These networks can stream high-definition security video, offer Wi-Fi Internet access and a number of other applications, and they have proven to be reliable during emergencies or large events when cellular networks tend to be overwhelmed.

But there was a catch: The private wireless networks were often limited to fixed, non-moving assets. In response to this technological challenge, Fluidmesh developed Fluidity, a system for mobile connectivity and vehicle communication. The technology can be used to provide broadband connectivity to moving vehicles such as buses, subways, trains, cars, and of course, ferries. The system delivers up to 100 Mbps of usable throughput up to 200 mph and fully supports video, voice and data. NY Waterway chose the system to create high-speed wireless networks with connectivity to all ports and ferries anywhere they operate.

Dealing with the Landscape

NY Waterways’ ferries operate over a huge area — with routes covering most of the Hudson and East Rivers, Upper New York Bay and Atlantic Highlands; thus, Fluidmesh needed to design a network coverage area that encompassed nearly every waterway surrounding Manhattan Island. The geography itself presents significant challenges for any radio frequency (RF)-based technology.

Fluidity enables NY Waterway to deploy redundant multi-tier mesh network infrastructures, meaning each ferry can be outfitted with multiple wireless routers at the same time while the system leverages each router to select the best point-of-access per network infrastructure available at any point in time. This provides better coverage, redundancy and fault-tolerance. The system also supports multiple frequencies within the same network, which allows for tremendous flexibility when working in crowded and dynamic RF areas like Manhattan.

The network was deployed at 22 shore-based locations in New York and New Jersey and on 35 individual ferries. Fluidmesh 3100 MITO, 1100 MITO series radios were used along the shorelines, which feature a small form factor that NY Waterway officials appreciated. An embedded patch antenna design helps maintain a high aesthetic standard found throughout ports and terminals. The 3100 Endo radio was selected for deployment aboard the ferries. The radio is designed for embedded applications, enabling the installer to mount the radio module and the antenna separately, thus allowing an omni-antenna to be used on the ships.

“To design Fluidity, we approached the mobility problem from a completely different point of view. Our goal was to build a solution not only suited for Internet browsing but for real-time streaming of video, voice and mission critical applications,” says Alessandro Erta, Fluidmesh CTO. “Mobility requires complex network operations such as handoff, IP address negotiation and mesh infrastructure point-of-access selection. We have taken a completely novel approach by designing, from the ground up, a cross-layer switching framework to completely hide these operations from user devices like cameras and VoIP phones.”

The result has been a reliable, high-bandwidth connection between the ferries and the ports. And while that was all the NY Waterway set out to accomplish in its initial plans, the design and engineering team asked another critical question during the planning stages: “With a network in place that can transfer such a large amount of data, how can we to turn all that data into actionable information?”

The answer, as it turns out, was a customized solution from Pantascene.

Realizing the Security Benefits

PantaScene develops customized software solutions that allow municipalities, police departments, port authorities, airports and other critical infrastructure to manage all security-related technologies in an integrated fashion, providing complete situational awareness and maximum efficiency in identifying and responding to any crisis.

With the wireless network in place, NY Waterway is able to take control of its fleet and passengers in a way that was not previously possible. New applications can include security, energy and fleet management, digital signage, public Wi-Fi, paperless ticketing and much more. With more data available to improve its business, the NY Waterway now needed a way to manage it.

PantaScene’s technology enables NY Waterway to focus on improving situational awareness and emergency preparedness via a user friendly and simplified map-based interface that displays all relevant data. By integrating with the ferry operator’s existing AIS system, NY Waterway officials can turn on a specific layer of the map to see the location [and other AIS data] of all watercraft in the area.

The ferries appear with a unique icon and are easily located on the map. By clicking on the icon, the camera streams from its onboard DVR immediately appear. If there is a need to speak with the captain, the security operator can initiate a VoIP call to the selected vessel; thus reducing and/or eliminating the need for mobile phones.

The system also integrates with a public announcement system to send alert messages and relevant signals in case of emergencies. The NY Waterway now has the ability to make system-wide announcements, as well as tailored messages to specific ferries or ports.

PantaScene is an open, web-based solution which provides maximum flexibility to the NY Waterway to ensure their critical systems can be accessed anywhere there is a web connection rather than relying on proprietary applications installed on specific workstations. PantaScene’s flexible architecture allowed the system to be deployed in a manner that best suited the customer’s IT environment and business needs. This will also allow the system to easily scale up to handle more cameras and/or users as the needs of the system grows.

Benefits Beyond Security

By having network connectivity on board, NY Waterway is able to increase ridership by providing infotainment and wi-fi connectivity to its passengers. Having a reliable Wi-Fi connection has become an extremely important service for customers and it gives NY Waterway a competitive advantage over other mass transit systems such as subway or light rail where a limited and unreliable Wi-Fi connection is provided.

Although the main driving factor of the installation was security, increasing ridership is an obvious priority in these economic times — if the wireless infrastructure is bringing more passengers, it means documented ROI for the system.