Automating the future

Richard Thomas, software development director at Abit, shares with us the benefits of taking an object-orientated approach to automating the future.
Delivery & Transmission

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Richard Thomas, software development director at Abit, shares with us the benefits of taking an object-orientated approach to automating the future.

With the need to control the transmission of ever more complex combinations of material and shorter content clips, even the most simple automation systems now need to change and grow to encompass the greater level of media management that Middle Eastern broadcasters require today.

The reason for this is that the more complex the playlist, the higher the likelihood of there being errors, overlaps or small gaps between material.

Once the playlist has been delivered by the scheduling system, it is the responsibility of the automation system to ensure that the material is made available by the media asset management system or is available on file servers located on the client's IT infrastructure.

The material is then imported by the automation system and transferred onto the appropriate systems within the transmission suite.

To minimise operator involvement, the automation system must ensure that all material is available and fits into the schedule accurately, taking into account ongoing schedule changes, alterations and peripheral equipment availability.

To achieve this, the system needs to be designed not around the number of devices it is to control but rather organised around the material it needs to transmit fetching material automatically from the archive, web server, or storage system, ready for air at the scheduled time.

In this way, the content becomes central to the transmission operation's workflow.

As well as reducing operator involvement, this has several additional advantages. For one, any dependency on any particular device, and, to a large degree, on exactly how any device works is removed.

By contrast, a machine-oriented automation system is limited by the characteristics of the devices that it was originally designed to use.

With time, new devices become available and devices need to interact more closely under the control of the automation system. Fundamentally, different dynamics are required to those that were incorporated in the original system design.

However, if the system is developed around the material - or an 'object'-orientated approach, a more flexible and future-proof system is created.

Additional devices can easily be added without a complete system re-design, saving both time and budget which is particularly important for the growing operations in the Middle East.

Secondly, the object-orientated workflow incorporates flexible data structures to allow the automation system to import/export the material metadata as well as the actual material.

The metadata can then be used for control purposes to trigger secondary events and synchronise additional features such as version control, logo generation, subtitling and closed captioning playout.

It is the ability of the system to import and export metadata that provides the frame work for a tighter integration of systems and the seamless linkage of parallel events while allowing maximum flexibility to enable last minute changes to the schedule of scheduling while still controlling the device playout accurately.

Thirdly, there is a higher level of redundancy built into the system providing adaptive workflow as well as parallel playout. If information is missing from the playlist, the automation system can be used to by-pass the media asset management system and fetch the correct clip.

This built-in level of protection provides a belt-and-braces approach to fail-safe transmission.

It is necessary to design the automation systems to pre-process data and automate as much material as possible, removing the background noise from the information flow to assist the operator.

To achieve this, the playlist must automatically recalculate timing changes throughout the system and all data must be treated as dynamic providing the operator with accurate information regarding timing conflicts and material availability.

This is particularly important when transmitting the channel in a second country with regional opt-outs for example, as it ensures that the primary material and the local content can be modified up to the point of playout while ensuring that transmission streams are merged seamlessly.

An automation system needs to be able to adapt and grow with the station's requirements. From schedule creation and commercial insertion to the accommodation of last minute changes, it should seamlessly cope with transferring schedules, finding and managing video and handling errors.

By selecting an object-orientated approach to automation, the shelf life of the automation system will be extended and, in addition, it will cost less on a day-to-day basis to manage the system and keep it on air.

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