Flying in the news with the IBA ‘bird’ 

31 July 2023

A diagram of a satellite receiving signals from France and beaming them to England

How hot news comes from space: pictures from an ITN camera crew, covering, for instance, the Tour de France, are beamed from the IBA’s transportable earth station to the Orbital Test Satellite. The satellite relats the signal either to the IBA’s receiving dish aerial at Crawley Court, or to the Post Office’s receiving station at Goonhilly Down in Cornwall. The picture is then switched, via the Post Office Tower in London, to the entire ITV network. Live coverage of the race could be on your screen within a fraction of a second.


Cover of TVTimes

From TVTimes for 23 February 1980

THERE ARE thatch-roofed cottages in the village of Crawley, six miles from Winchester, Hampshire. But only yards away, on well-barbered lawns which once belonged to the manor house, stands a symbol of TV’s latest communications technology — a three-metre white plastic dish aerial receiving signals from a satellite over equatorial Africa.

The old manor house has long gone; the present Crawley Court — a long, low, white building looking like a modem university — is the engineering and research centre of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. And the £75,000 [£285,000 in today’s money, allowing for inflation –Ed] earth station on the lawn is involved in an experiment designed to lead to a faster service of television news and other programmes from Europe and North Africa.

The signals it was built to receive are coming from a satellite known as the O.T.S. (Orbital Test Satellite), launched for the European Space Agency from Cape Kennedy, Florida, nearly two years ago.

In a room no bigger than a modest bedroom on the first floor of Crawley Court, the signals are automatically monitored day and night. Needles flicker on dials and a mechanical pen traces a continuous blue ink record on imperceptibly moving graph paper.

Dr. Hugh O’Neill of the Radio Frequency section of the IBA’s Experimental and Development Department, takes that day’s graph and points with his pencil at fluctuations in the ink line. “That”, he says, “was during heavy rain.”

Dr. O’Neill’s current research concerns how much weather conditions affect the reception of TV pictures from the “bird”.

All the information is being fed into Crawley’s computer which processes it for analysis by the IBA’s main computer and Dr. O’Neill says the experiment is going well.

If there are no snags the O.T.S. — which was designed for a life of about three years — will be replaced early in the Eighties by the E.C.S. (European Communications Satellite). Eurovision will be on satellite — using the “bird” for TV transmissions, particularly of news and sport, from any point on the Continent to a studio centre.

The main snag with present outside broadcast equipment is that it makes it almost impossible to arrange a live outside broadcast at short notice so television often has to rely on film or a video recording made on the spot and flown back to Britain.

But with the E.C.S. permanently in station it will be possible to bounce pictures off it and back to Earth from mobile terminals. The IBA already has one, the first of its kind in Europe, which was also built for the present experiment, and is mounted on a trailer for towing behind a lorry.

It was demonstrated publicly for the first time in September 1978, when it was used to send pictures from the Wembley Conference Centre in London via the O.T.S. for live inclusion in an ITN bulletin — an achievement which won the Royal Television Society’s International Current Affairs Award for new techniques.


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