Afghan High-Def Connection Puts Marines at Super Bowl

April 15, 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Connections

For a few moments during the Super Bowl, viewers caught a glimpse of U.S. Marines at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, ready for the game. The clip marked only the second high-definition shot broadcast out of the country—the first was hours earlier—and most people at home probably thought little about it. But the event was a culmination of tremendous effort and dedication on the part of the personnel who made it happen.

Staff Sgt. Philip Grondin, USMC, broadcast chief with 1 Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) at Camp Leatherneck, had the responsibility to create the video feed. He explains that Marines broadcast over a Norsat NewsLink using portable Ku-band satellite transmitters. The high-definition (HD) link is a new capability for troops in Afghanistan. Last October, the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) deployed HD upgrade kits to all units there. "Before I deployed in September, I was aware of the forthcoming HD upgrade kits, but when it arrived at Camp Leatherneck, I was shocked to find out that our video cameras were not compatible with the design of the system," Staff Sgt. Grondin says.

Fortunately, he had a Panasonic HPX170 P2 camera for his deployment, "the very camera for which the DVIDS direct kit was designed for," he explains. That didn't help subordinate public affairs units with their challenge to feed HD video using Streambox software. Again fate stepped in to help as Don Hill, a Norsat representative, was in country performing maintenance on existing systems and providing training on the upgrade technology.

"Working with Don, I was able to develop a solution that all our units could use," Staff Sgt. Grondin says. "The approach we used reminded me of the scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the astronauts have to build an air filter using only the available equipment in the spacecraft. In effect, we had to make a square peg fit into a round hole." After taking stock of inventory, the men figured out a way to connect everything with the HD kits.

Later, other issues cropped up among hardware and software pieces, including a problem with Matrox firmware. Staff Sgt. Grondin called the company to explain the situation, which agreed to send a prerelease copy of a firmware upgrade. "That fixed the problem," he says. After successfully completing the work, Hill and the staff sergeant wrote instructions for using the upgrade kits, and Staff Sgt. Grondin began training other Marines in his shop.

Resolving the issue was no small feat, however. "To get the system up and running took Don Hill and I four solid days of work," Staff Sgt. Grondin says. "When I say solid days, I mean working until 2 a.m. and re-starting the next morning at 8 a.m." He felt the time and labor were valuable because they prevented the new gear from becoming a $15,000 paperweight. "This equipment, specifically the capability it provides, was too important to the broadcast component of the Marine Corps public affairs mission to just let it sit there and say 'we can't figure it out,'" Staff Sgt. Grondin explains.

It also gave him the distinction of making Camp Leatherneck the first Afghanistan installation to be on TV in HD. "It was not a question of being selected to be the first, it was the fact we were the first to take this technology and make it work for us," he says. The premier HD video stream was a news interview, followed 14 hours later by the big-game appearance.

Staff Sgt. Grondin was not on screen during the Super Bowl, because he and six other Marines worked technical aspects. The staff sergeant served as the field producer, director and lead engineer. "The Marines who appeared on the Super Bowl shot were Marines from various units on base who gathered at the USO tent to watch the big game," he explains. "I think they were very excited."

And they weren't the only ones. "As for those of us behind the scenes, we were all very excited at getting live shots during the Super Bowl," Staff Sgt. Grondin says. "That event served as validation that all the hard work we had done to get the HD capability up and running was finally paying off."


More about the 1 Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), including its communications successes and frustrations, as well as what industry can do to help, will be featured in the May and June editions of SIGNAL.
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