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Imagination at work

Imagination at work

Five CIO 100 honorees are boosting revenue, cutting costs and maybe saving the planet with cool technologies

The life aquatic

What: With just $US70,000, Dominic Landucci, network administrator for NOAA's Undersea Research Center (NURC), constructed the network infrastructure to connect NURC's Key Largo office with its laboratory near a coral reef on the ocean floor, nine miles off Florida's southern tip. Called Aquarius, the 400-square-foot lab serves as home base for divers studying the reef and as a training camp for astronauts adjusting to weightless life in close quarters. Landucci's network, which he began building in 2003, lets NURC and NASA employees on land communicate clearly via voice over IP with colleagues in the lab or on dives. The network is robust enough to transmit real-time streaming video to the Web so the public can see the oceanographic research NURC scientists are doing or the training astronauts are getting.

Why: Existing voice and data transmissions were choppy and the infrastructure outdated, says Landucci. "The video equipment often crashed, and the voice over IP system was old." NURC also wanted to transmit better images to spark public interest in the lab's mission and make a compelling case for funding each year.

Technology: The voice and data connection between the undersea lab and the office is facilitated through wireless and wireline communications. A 180-foot-long wire running between the lab and a 30-foot buoy bobbing on the waves transmits voice and data. Installed on the buoy is a point-to-point broadband wireless Ethernet bridge from Orthogon Systems. The vendor designed it with two antennae to overcome the buoy's movement and the refraction of radio signals on the water, which made communications choppy. From the buoy, the broadband wireless system sends voice and data signals to audio and video servers and to the office's Vonage VoIP network. Open-source Darwin Stream of Server software processes the video feeds and serves them via the Web. A videoconferencing device from Polycom lets NURC employees on land talk to and see the divers.

Cool quotient: Landucci used standard communications technology to build the network. With the same technology and the excess bandwidth the new network provides, an astronaut on the International Space Station can talk to an aquanaut in the undersea laboratory. "I have the capability to make that happen. I just haven't done it yet," he says.

ROI: Phone calls between scientists in the lab and NURC employees on land are now as clear as the skies above Key Largo. The link from the habitat to the buoy was upgraded from a speed of 10Mbps to 100Mbps. Video streams have gone from 30-second delays to three-second delays. Landucci says he's saved NURC some monthly costs by using open-source software and donated equipment. He estimates that a private branch exchange phone system would have cost $20,000.

Robots come to health care

What: The Ohio State University Medical Center (OSUMC) replaced its overhead rail transport system with 46 self-guided robotic vehicles to move linens, meals, trash and medical supplies throughout the 1,000-bed hospital. The robots do not interact with patients; they carry out routine tasks hospital staff used to do.

Why: Faced with declining revenue and rising costs, OSUMC needed to save money while improving patient care. A steering committee comprising IT, other hospital departments, consultants and vendors drove this project. They convinced medical staff of its value by demonstrating the technology and communicating how it improved working conditions and patient care. Materials transport was identified as a place to cut costs since the hospital needed to upgrade the existing system.

Technology: The robots, made by FMC Technologies, are guided by a wireless infrared network from Cisco Systems. The network is embedded in corridor walls and elevators designed for the robots' use. Three Windows servers linked to the network maintain a database of robot jobs and traffic patterns.

Cool quotient: OSUMC was the first hospital in the United States to implement an infrared-guided automated system for transporting materials. Hospital staff use a touch-screen computer connected to a server to call a robot when, for example, a linen cart needs to go to the laundry room. To get from point A to point B, the robots rely on a digital map of the medical center programmed into their memory; they also track their movements against the number of times their wheels rotate in a full circle. So if it takes a robot 1,000 wheel revolutions to get from a building's kitchen to the sixth floor, and its wheels have moved in 500 revolutions, the robot knows it is halfway there. If a robot loses network contact, it shuts down.

ROI: The $US18 million system is expected to save the hospital around $US1 million a year over the next 25 years. Since it went live in 2004, OSUMC has saved $US27,375 annually on linen delivery alone. OSUMC's CIO Detlev "Herb" Smaltz says the system improves patient care by freeing up personnel: "If we can take mundane jobs like taking out the trash off of our employees and give them more time to do the things they came into the health-care profession to do, then that's an added benefit of the system."

Senior Writer Meridith Levinson can be reached at mlevinson@cio.com.

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