How do you keep 15 autonomous catamarans in constant communication while they navigate, translate, and recover objects over eight days off the coast of Hawaii?
You build a network — a really good one.
This was the task set before Branch Network’s Nick Casassa at last month’s Maritime RobotX competition in Honolulu, Hawaii. Casassa is the Chief Technology Officer of Branch Networks, a Panama City Beach-based network and internet provider and a TechFarms tenant. RobotX is the most complex competition of RoboNation, a nonprofit that provides robotics education internationally.
During the eight-day competition, 15 collegiate teams from three continents converged on Hawaii’s Sand Island. Their goal: produce the boat that can best dodge obstacles, identify symbols, navigate courses, recover objects and more — all autonomously. For months, each team had been preparing a twin-hull catamaran, to which they affixed an array of sensors, hardware, and software to complete the autonomous tasks.
To enable all of that communication, RoboNation required a solid network. That’s where Branch Networks came in.
“It was go design the network, order the equipment, pre-configure the network, as well as document, and then get out there, build the network,” said Casassa, who got his feet wet during RoboNation’s RoboBoat competition in July 2018. “When things were appearing — the staff trailers, the competitors’ tents, the tents for the competition — as those were all being built and set up, I would build my network into those elements.”
The end result was more than 4,000 feet of fiber and several thousand feet of Cat 6A cable — “the standard for all Ethernet communications” Casassa said — providing access points up and down half a mile of beach.
“There are multiple wireless connections, multiple wired connections, there are several radios all running and operating at 2.4 GHz, 5.8 GHz, as well as other frequencies that are used for all kinds of communication and automation for each one of these worldwide teams,” Casassa said.
Also heavily involved in the competition was another Panama City Beach resident, Bill Porter, an engineer at Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division.
“The competitor course was Bill’s job,” Casassa said. “Everything from how they operate their radio communications to how they decide what tests they have to do. But the boats that were out there that were autonomous were able to communicate because of the network I built.”
It might not have been the typical beach vacation — Casassa worked about 15 hours a day — but the work paid off. The only “issue” to hamper Casassa’s network was someone inadvertently unplugging a piece of equipment.
“I had one lady with RoboNation come up to me and tell me, ‘I am so impressed,’” Casassa said. “’We’re always so nervous about something going down with the network. But you met all of our needs and then some. We never had anyone complain about the internet.’”
Casassa said a common problem with such “pop-up networks” — think large outdoor concerts, for example — is that providers fail to understand the density required to accommodate all of the data being transmitted.
“What that means is a lot of access points, a lot of infrastructure because you have a lot of users trying to do stuff in a very little bit of space,” he said.
“That internet connection needs a way to reach all of the people that are in a venue. So we have to kind of lay the tracks the rest of the way so that everybody can travel on those tracks. Everyone wants to have a train that goes really fast, but nobody realizes you have to have the tracks.”
Up next for Branch Networks is another kind of pop-up network: emergency communications after a disaster such as Hurricane Michael in October 2018. After the storm hit Bay County, Florida, Branch Networks made headlines by using an existing internet connection to prop up a large Wi-Fi network for about 300 nearby residents. That same kind of network is possible on a much larger scale, Casassa said.
“If there is no power, that complicates things but doesn’t make it impossible,” he said. “One of the things we’re talking about making is a new kind of tower, basically a trailer with a large-capacity generator, and an extendable mechanical tower, that we could park and prop up and give people Wi-Fi access.”
The technology exists but is prohibitively expensive and is used mostly for military applications. Branch hopes to make its mobile Wi-Fi networks accessible for both the emergency and government sectors.
“We realize that there’s a huge need for this in city and local governments,” Casassa said. “We have plans, and we hope to be able to build and deploy these systems when needed.”