Philip Mason talks to the University of Louvain about their ICCA-winning satellite comms roll-out at a COVID-19 testing centre in Piedmont, Italy

Across the course of this year, one of the main things which CCThas set out to do as a platform is spend time talking to the winners of the 2020 International Critical Communications Awards. The awards are a crucial event for the sector after all, showcasing global best practice across a broad range of verticals.

With that in mind, in this issue we are publishing the final ICCAs focus of 2021, this time looking at the award for best use of critical communications in public safety. The winning roll-out in this category was the B-LiFE (Biological Light Field Laboratory for Emergencies) COVID-19 testing facility, set up last year in Piedmont, Italy. The project was led by the Centre for Applied Molecular Technologies of UCLouvain, with ETELM integrating satellite and terrestrial (LTE, TETRA, Wi-Fi) networks through a 4G-linked platform.

This is obviously an apt topic on which to end the year, given the shadow that COVID-19 has cast over the past 19 months. It will also hopefully serve as a small acknowledgement both of the first-responders and health professionals who have worked so hard during the pandemic, as well as the continued ingenuity of the critical communications sector itself, under often incredibly difficult conditions.

Social distancing without chaos

Established in the late spring of 2020, the mobile field laboratory deployed in the Piedmont region enabled the Italian authorities – in the words of host organisation the European Space Agency (ESA) – “to test thousands of key workers for COVID-19”.

“Staff used the lab to perform and analyse nasopharyngeal swabs, to identify whether or not a person had the coronavirus,” continued the ESA statement. “[Staff also] conducted antibody tests to demonstrate whether a person had been recently infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus with evidence of an immune response after the viral infection.”

While use of the ESA Piedmont facility was obviously valuable, the location also possessed the key drawback of having no communications infrastructure whatsoever. This, according to one of the interviewees for this article, was due to the all-metal structure of the building, creating in essence an enormous Faraday cage.

Giving more detail about the site, B-LiFE principal medical expert, Professor Jean-Luc Gala, says: “The location in Piedmont was chosen by the Italian authorities, essentially for its size and easy accessibility for the individuals to be tested. At the time, we were at the height of COVID-19, and there was a need to test thousands of key workers. “Obviously, the authorities wanted to know who had the virus, but also whether the biosafety procedures and personal protective equipment that they’d issued were working.

“The Piedmont location made it easy to maintain social distancing on the site without creating chaos, because it was such a wide-open space. The facility was also guarded, which ensured that it wouldn’t be broken into, and the equipment stolen or damaged. It was perfect for this type of testing set up.”

He continues: “The lab was situated in the large hall of the facility, within which we also had a container to take blood samples and nasopharyngeal swabs. On arrival, we took the personal details of everyone being tested, after which they received an anonymised lab identification number in order to respect GDPR.

“In terms of the testing itself, we checked for anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies using a prick test on the patient’s finger. If that was positive, they would undergo more testing; if it was negative, we would allow them to go home.”

As mentioned, as welcome as use of the facility was, one key problem that needed to be solved was the provision of communications infrastructure, the details of which we shall discuss later in the article. This was necessary to enable what is known as the on-site laboratory information management system (or LIMS for short), which is a software-based solution enabling the management and sharing of patient data, and the protection of data in compliance with GDPR.

Describing the operation of the LIMS, Gala says: “It essentially enables the protected collection of personal data, and data from all the different lab devices, which can then be stored, formatted, sent to stakeholders and so on. At the same time – and this was particularly useful with COVID-19 – it also enables the user organisation to draw an accurate map of the cases and suspected cases.”

According to Gala, the Piedmont LIMS was continually operating, in real time, throughout the six-week operation period. The data collection process began with the aforementioned patient registration, followed by the various different rounds of testing. Results were then processed, both manually and automatically, with the system linking anonymous personal data and laboratory data.

“It was crucial to have the capacity to do this,” says Gala. “In this kind of scenario, there’s a huge amount of data to deal with, incorporated into a complicated information flow. That relates not only to the samples, but the type of analysis and technology that you’re intending to use, as well as the need to protect sensitive medical and personal data use by anonymising them.”

Complicated process

For the University of Louvain, there were two key requirements when it came to the Piedmont COVID-19 testing centre communications infrastructure. The first of these, fairly obviously, was that it worked as it should, providing a reliable network for as long as the project required.

At the same time, the system also needed to be easy to set up and install, due to the lack of specialised communications engineers onsite. This requirement was simultaneously informed by previous – not necessarily always positive – experiences of deploying the B-LiFE in even more remote locations than the testing centre.

The solution ultimately provided by ETELM was its 4G-linked platform, which enables a multi-technology standalone ‘telecom emergency node’, integrating both satellite and terrestrial assets into a unified mission-critical network. Standards available via the use of the system included TETRA and private LTE.

Discussing the solution, B-LiFE Consortium’s technical director, Alexander Vybornov, says: “The idea behind the technology is to provide a bubble, providing different types of terrestrial communications, via a reliable and secure sat com link.

“In certain locations – such as the COVID-19 testing facility – Wi-Fi is obviously the preferred form of communication. However, in more remote areas of the world, it is also necessary to have voice communication between the end-users. For instance, as in 2014 when the B-LiFE laboratory was set up at an Ebola treatment centre in Guinea, West Africa.”

He continues: “When you’re talking about a mobile lab, everything needs to be quickly deployable. This is because the lab team doesn’t always know where it will deploy, or what the conditions will be like when they get there. Is the existing telecommunications infrastructure reliable and efficient?

“The idea in that case is to have a platform which is fully independent, and not dependent on whatever conditions may be prevalent. That way, you’re never relying on a third party and you can communicate straight away.”

The importance of this is illustrated in reverse by the communications link employed during the 2014 Guinean roll-out. While it ultimately was very effective, according to Gala the system was by no means easy to set up and use.

“The set-up in Guinea was really not user-friendly at all,” he says. “We had a big issue with the antenna, for instance, which was inflatable. It was very difficult to align on the satellite, and if there was any kind of leakage of air, you lost the connection altogether.

“It was impressive to look at, but awful to work with, thereby requiring the presence of an engineer pretty much the whole time. That kind of person is difficult to recruit, and once the technology is in place, they’re just sitting around waiting for a technical failure which may not happen.”

Talking more generally about the mission to West Africa – and its attendant communications requirements – he continues: “Because of the remoteness of the location, there was no commercial coverage whatsoever. The mobile network which Orange had set up across the country was just not accessible in that region.

“That obviously had major medical consequences, not least that the lack of communication could make it incredibly difficult to contact specialists who were not already onsite. We didn’t have paediatricians, for example.

“At the same time, there was also the psychological aspect for the team of not being able to communicate with their families for months on end. The inflatable antenna was difficult to work with, but it worked and did enable us to make the necessary professional and family contacts. For instance, it enabled me to reassure my eight-year-old daughter, who was very scared due to me being in a location with Ebola.”

Six years later in Piedmont, meanwhile, the brief for ETELM was to provide something which was highly improved and much more adapted to the field conditions. In real terms, this meant a comparatively low-weight solution, the installation of which was so straightforward Gala could do it himself. The previously mentioned ‘Faraday cage’ issue, meanwhile, was solved by placing the antennas outside.

Going into detail in regard to the set-up, Vybornov says: “In Piedmont, the B-LiFE telecommunication team used different types of internet service provider integrated in the telecommunication emergency node. Used as backhaul for the terrestrial telecommunication subsystem, the TEN architecture consisted of the GovSat-1 satellite operating in X band, Eutelsat Ka-band HTS services, and Vodafone IT infrastructure.”

“These three types of ISP channels were combined to create a robust unified backbone for the private telecommunication bubble. The Wi-Fi, TETRA and LTE were combined, which provided sufficient bandwidth and delay to the end-users.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge, often overwhelmingly negative, impact on how we live our lives. As the B-LiFE Piedmont roll-out demonstrates, however, it has also given the chance for the sector to showcase its seemingly inexhaustible levels of ingenuity.

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Author: Philip Mason