Wireless Mt. Washington

By Gerry Blackwell

May 30, 2003

A New Hampshire consulting firm has engineered a Wi-Fi link atop the highest mountain in the northeast United States to provide a continuous Web cam in the worst weather imaginable.

The winter weather at the top of Mount Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire and in the whole northeast United States, is, in a word, foul.

On one record-breaking occasion, the wind speed measured at the Mount Washington Observatory reached 230 miles per hour. While it may be true that you can't fall off a mountain, in those conditions you could easily get blown off one.

If Wi-Fi can work here, it stands to reason, it can work just about anywhere. Thanks to some canny engineering by Robert "Hobbes" Zakon, chief technology officer at Zakon Group LLC of North Conway, N.H., Wi-Fi does indeed work here.

Zakon engineered a five-mile point-to-point shot using ORiNOCO equipment from Proxim to connect a remote Web cam to the Observatory's wired frame-relay link to the Internet.

"Mount Washington is renowned for having the worst weather in the northeast," Zakon says. "The highest ground wind ever recorded in the U.S. was recorded there. It's a whole lot of weather -- snow, ice, winds. Engineering a solution was a big challenge."

His firm, a consulting/engineering jack of all trades, counts wireless as one of its specialties, but only one of many. "We work mostly with advanced and emerging technologies," Zakon says.

Mount Washington Observatory is a non-profit weather research station. The facility is shared by the US Forest Service and is also a tourist center in the summer. The Observatory already had some Web cams in place to show weather conditions on the mountain, but it didn't have any outside, and it didn't have any that showed a key feature: the Tuckerman Ravine on the southeast side, an area popular with spring skiers and summer hikers.

A Web cam would be a boon to the hikers and skiers. "Sometimes it's snowing up there when it's a perfectly sunny day down below [in North Conway]," Zakon says. "And you get some amazing cloud cover up there." If it was properly done, if it could show enough detail, a Web cam might even be useful in helping guide rescuers to avalanche survivors.

The Observatory secured a government grant to install a Web cam that would show the ravine. Observatory members who use the recreation facilities on the mountain also chipped in. Securing funds was the easy part, though. It was left up to Zakon to solve the real problems: how to provision and power a communications link 6,000 feet up a desolate mountain.

The logical place to put the Web cam to get the view the Observatory wanted was across Pinkham Notch (a notch is a gap in a mountain range) at the Wildcat ski area, a seasonal facility only open in late winter and early spring.

Whatever communications technology they used, it would need power. The ski area uses gasoline generators, which the Web cam station could also have used -- but only during the short skiing season. The Observatory could also have installed its own generator, but that would have meant hauling fuel up the mountain in winter, which would be impractical.

That left solar or wind. Wind power involves moving parts exposed to extremely high winds which could result in damage or jamming. Zakon went with solar from SunWize Technologies of Kingston, N.Y.

An affordable system couldn't be counted on to provide continuous power year round, but the communications and camera technology wouldn't need to be switched on all the time as the plan was to transmit an image only every 15 minutes.

"We're not looking at people in an Internet cafe here," Zakon points out. "Things aren't going to change that fast." So the system was engineered with a photo-cell switch and timer that would switch the system on only during daylight hours for three minutes at a time every 15 minutes.

That solved the power source problem.

Getting a phone line to the ski area was out of the question. The ski operators use walkie-talkie-style radios for communications. While surveying the area, though, Zakon noticed that he could see the roof of the observatory from Wildcat. That meant fixed wireless was a possibility.

After researching the market, he decided the best bet was standards-based 2.4 GHz -- Wi-Fi. It provided the bandwidth required to transmit high-quality images, it was inexpensive -- and going with a standards-based solution would make it easier in the future to turn the Wildcat site into a hub for a wireless network of remote stations feeding weather data.

Zakon considered off-the-shelf components from Young Design Inc. (YDI) and HyperLink Technologies Inc., but in the end opted for the all-in-one-box ORiNOCO Point-to-Point Backbone Kit, built around the OR-500 Outdoor Router. (Proxim has since replaced this product with the Tsunami QuickBridge 11.)

The ORiNOCO gear barely met the five-mile range requirement, but a single-vendor, pre-engineered solution was easier to sell to the Observatory, which would be maintaining the system after Zakon got it up and running. "ORiNOCO technical support said, 'Yes, it'll probably work,'" he recalls. "We didn't get the warmest fuzziest feelings from ORiNOCO."

Zakon also gave careful consideration to an antenna, selecting a Yagi model from ORiNOCO in the end. It had to be directional to reduce the potential for interference with other RF activity on the mountain, including military, government and broadcast. With a parabolic antenna, there would be the possibility of ice accumulating in the dish and attenuating the signal. A whip antenna would be too prone to snapping in the wind.

Placement of the antennas and radios was critical -- especially at the Wildcat end where the camera would also be placed. Zakon found an ideal spot. The ski area at one time had a gondola ski lift. The structure at the top of the mountain remained. Zakon had a custom enclosure built for the wireless, solar power and camera technology and mounted it in one of the gondola bays.

At the Observatory end, he found he could mount the antenna and radio inside in a window well behind hurricane-proof glass.

In the end, though, all the careful engineering amounted to best guesses as to what the equipment could withstand in the way of weather. The Observatory made the decision to go ahead and buy the equipment and test it this winter before going live. As it happened, it was a good year to test -- it was one of the worst winters in a long time. The network came through with flying colors.

The camera is a Canon VC-C4 pan/tilt/zoom (PTV) model. It's controlled by a purposely-built AXIS 2401 Video Server from Axis Communications, a Swedish company, which allows an operator to control its angle of view and zoom the lens in and out over the Internet.

To see output from the Wildcat Web cam, go to this page at the Mount Washington Observatory site. To learn more about the engineering project and see pictures of the technology in situ, go to this page at Zakon's site.

Originally published on .

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