The price was astronomical. The months-long downtime
could have cost some their jobs.

In the end there was no way to fix the computerized medical
equipment at the remote location in an Army field hospital in the Horn of Africa. Instead,
thousands of dollars were spent on airfare, accommodations and life insurance to bring a
civilian technician to war-ravaged Somalia during the United Nations intervention in 1993.

“No one was pleased, I can tell you that,” said
maintenance specialist Tracey Stephens of the U.S. Army Medical Material Agency. “Too
bad we didn’t have then the kind of technology we have now.”

So weary was the Army of grappling with such maintenance problems
that it bought a videoconferencing unit, the Telemaintenance Cart designed by Client
Network Services Inc. of Frederick, Md. The system lets rear-area technical specialists
maintain and repair medical equipment in remote areas through videoconferencing.

The system is mounted on a wheeled cart and has two cameras
attached, one from Sharp Electronics of Paramus, N.J., used for face-to-face
conversations, and a VizCam 1000 from Canon USA of Lake Success, N.Y., used for viewing
the equipment.

Also included in the system is a Hewlett-Packard Co. 200-MHz
Vectra VL5200 Pentium with 32M of RAM, a 1.6G hard drive and a 17-inch monitor.

The system uses PictureTel Live50 videoconferencing software,
which includes PictureTel LiveShare Plus, and enables near real-time videoconferencing at
128 Kbps over an Integrated Services Digital Network line.

The PictureTel unit also includes an electronic whiteboard with
annotation tools, drag and drop file transfer, shared clipboard and remote control.

The Live50 and LiveShare Plus software from PictureTel Corp. of
Andover, Mass., also lets users remotely share Microsoft Windows applications. Individuals
and groups can collaborate on presentations, reports and other projects simply by passing
application control back and forth with the click of a mouse.

“Video images help ensure accuracy and simplify the whole
procedure for us without having to jump onto an airplane and go to a site and fix the
machine,” Stephens said.

The system also offers maintenance soldiers and technicians the
convenience of compact size and easily replaceable off-the-shelf parts.

“We think that we designed a reliable and user-friendly
machine,” said Adnan Ahmed, CNSI vice president of business development. “But
the real challenge here was recognizing the fact that this machine was going into an
environment in which this kind of technology had never been used before, so we wanted it
to be easy to use. So far as we can see, we’ve accomplished our goal.”

Telemaintenance has proven easy enough to learn, Stephens said.
“It really only took us several days of training to come up to speed on the new
system, and I believe it took soldiers in the field a similar length of time,” she
said. “These features and the ease of operations are critical for dealing with repair
problems in the field.”

With the file transfer option, for example, consultants can
transmit a long written procedure almost instantly.

The whiteboard application lets consultants take a snapshot of a
schematic, bring it up on the screen and, using different colored pointers, demonstrate a
hot line and draw signals to the locations of critical test points, Stephens said.

The system helps keep technicians from trying to solve problems
alone. Even when manufacturers’ documentation included schematics, it didn’t
detail which sites needed to be checked, she said.

“The new system really expedites the process,” Stephens

Telemaintenance Cart users can communicate through either ISDN
hookup, for soldiers in extremely remote areas, or via satellite. But the quality of the
transmission is not as high as it is over an ISDN line.

“Most players in this business focus on the high-bandwidth
applications,” said Craig Reichenbach, PictureTel’s vice president of federal
operations. “We’ve decided that there is a very real market for organizations
operating with low bandwidth, especially within the government.”

The Army has 47 telemaintenance links up and running in Bosnia,
Honduras and at other sites worldwide.    

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