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Choosing the Right Mobile Hardware Solution

Written by Brad Brewer

The mobile workstation (MWS) in law enforcement has evolved significantly over the past few decades. In the 1970s, mobile data terminals (MDT) were basic terminals that were fixed, usually mounted down low on the transmission hump in front of the vehicle bench seat, and handhelds simply didn’t exist.

These legacy terminals had tiny screens and usually only allowed for a hundred characters to be displayed at one time on the screen. They were essentially a “dumb” terminal that displayed tombstone CAD data and allowed officers basic person and vehicle query.

These terminals did not have any imbedded intelligence in the form of programmed logic, but they provided a user interface to a more capable host computer. Bandwidth was narrow, most working on private data radio at 4,800 bps. Motorola made one of the most widely used first generation terminals; the 9031 model was extremely effective and was a vast improvement over the days when voice dispatch was the norm.

Agencies quickly saw the benefits having MDT in the police vehicle because of the reduced radio congestion as a result of officers doing queries, getting dispatch tickets, sending messages and creating on view incidents. Benefits were realized by the dispatcher and with officers in the field, taking the workload away from the dispatchers. The degree of benefit an agency will achieve from any mobile hardware solution depends considerably on which hardware, software, and peripheral technologies it chooses to implement.

Regardless, even moving away from a paper-based, voice-only system to a very basic computerized system can provide enormous returns. Before choosing hardware, officials must seriously review their business processes and determine exactly what they will do from the field. Is it true mobile report entry or is it simply CAD, dispatch tickets and query functionality they require?

Today, law enforcement hardware and software development continues to advance at an exponential rate. Some believe we are almost at the tipping point where we are dangerously close to overloading the front line officers with too much technology. At the same time, there is the risk of new officers losing the ability to do old-fashioned police work without a computer. We all know officers who have had computers their entire police service and become dependant upon them, so much so that they complain that they can’t go out on the road because the “system” is down.

Hardware options available today are broad and have changed the way law enforcement conducts business. Traditional clamshell laptop computers have been the standard deployment in most police vehicles in North America. Fixed screen systems with detachable keyboards are becoming more popular with some agencies but can have limited applications.

Handheld, or tablet pen-based systems, are also commonly used, but anything with detachable pieces used in a law enforcement application can be troublesome. Today, a handheld device such as a BlackBerry is designed to extend the reach of critical information away from the traditional police vehicle.

All these hardware applications can be broken down into the following sub categories: consumer grade, semi-ruggedized, and ruggedized. Don’t let anyone tell you there isn’t a difference. There is a big difference, especially when the user is a cop.

In most agencies, the police vehicle and laptop is used 24/7, and it’s estimated that in one year of police patrol duty, the average laptop gets the equivalent of three to five years of normal consumer use. This is important when trying to decide what to buy for your agency.

There are many things to consider. Often, a civilian purchasing agent or tech person doesn’t anticipate the rigorous environment of patrol duty until the hardware maintenance and repair invoices start arriving. In the mobile environment, vibrations, temperature, moisture or dust can destroy computers, especially hard drives.

Something as simple as hinge strength can be overlooked; while bouncing around in a police unit, the clamshell notebook hinge can lose its strength and need replacement. This is especially true of consumer-grade notebooks mounted in police vehicles. Consider this: in an officer-involved motor vehicle accident, a consumer-grade laptop becomes a projectile when an airbag rips the screen off and sends it flying.

Ruggedized notebooks have survived many documented motor vehicle incidents and can withstand much greater force. Most manufacturers who claim to build rugged computers have gravitated to a variation of a standards scheme set forth by the U.S.

The MIL-STD-810F standards specify a variety of environmental tests that manufacturers can use to prove that equipment will survive in the field. Of these variables, those that are most relevant to rugged computing include humidity, contamination by fluids, salt fog, sand and dust, icing / freezing rain, explosive atmosphere (arcing / sparks), leakage, high / low temperatures, solar radiation, low pressure (altitude), shock and vibration.

Currently, the military does not conduct actual tests or certify that rugged devices meet MIL-STD-810F standards. Instead, the military expect its suppliers of rugged computing equipment to assure or guarantee adherence to the standards.

As a result, many rugged computing manufacturers are able to tout their devices as “MIL-STD-810F-compliant” when they meet only one or two of the testing criteria, even if the device is never offered to or purchased by the military. Manufacturers often claim partial or near compliance with a particular MIL-STD-810F testing standard, or otherwise overstate their device’s rugged characteristics. This is why it is critical that claims be tested and proven.

Case in point, one MIL-STD ruggedized test well known to most is the drop test, which states that the laptop must survive a 3-foot drop, landing flat, while powered off. In the real world, how many times do you think your users will power the laptop off before they drop it and then ensure that it lands flat?

Never. And Panasonic engineers agreed. So they made certain their fully ruggedized products survive the MIL-STD-810F 3-foot drop test when powered on and open, and landing on every corner of the notebook. The difference is subtle to some but is a much more realistic and true test for the law enforcement environment.

When looking at a hardware solution, agencies need to consider that there is good reason ruggedized hardware is more expensive then consumer grade. It is designed specifically for law enforcement or military deployment. By purchasing a ruggedized mobile solution to military specifications, you are buying a purpose-built tool to perform a specific task where access to information is critical. Not only does it have MIL-STD testing, but depending on the vendor, it has been deployed in the field for years and has been fine tuned to improve the product.

Typically, the hard drive is packed in gel then cased in aluminum. Internal heat dissipation occurs through engineered piping that allows for cooling as opposed to a consumer-grade laptop with an external fan that allows foreign matter to enter. Consumer grade laptops are not designed for the law enforcement mobile environment.

Don’t get caught like some agencies have by taking the word of a consumer-grade vendor who says, “Don’t worry about repairs or downtime. We will supply a pool of replacements that can be swapped out on the fly.” In law enforcement, this doesn’t work as well as promised.

With security software and wireless security, IT staff has to ensure connectivity to your system, and swapping out multiple laptops is time consuming labor intensive. In law enforcement, computers relay critical information that often affect the outcome of a critical situation and the safety of the officer.

Warranty replacement is beneficial, but there is no benefit at 3 a.m. when the laptop goes down and an officer needs critical information. Is your agency prepared to pay for 24/7 mobile IT support? How far away do you have to ship the notebooks for repair? Is there a guaranteed 48-hour turnaround? Remember, the most expensive component of any mobile computing hardware solution is downtime.

The selection process should be driven by a project team made up primarily of operational front-line users. The users know what they need, but they also need technical design assistance from the IT professionals. Field testing is mandatory with any piece of hardware; let front-line users in your agency visit with other front-line users and get the real users’ input to ensure proper testing results.

Don’t get lazy and do your background checks with a phone call to the civilian IT or purchasing staff member who signed off on the product. If the product they bought isn’t working well in the field, do you think they are going to tell you?

Don’t overlook the seemingly small things. Not enough RAM means your GPS/AVL mapping solution may not draw or load fast enough or search addresses quickly. Do you require GPS imbedded in the laptop or mounted in the vehicle? If you’re considering removable laptops, then the GPS module imbedded in the laptop is the best choice.

When looking at rubberized keyboards, are they keyboards that an officer can type a long report on, or are they stiff, rubberized, one-piece keyboards that don’t lend themselves to anything simpler than keystrokes for basic CAD interaction? Backlit keyboards are always better than having a snake light or peripheral light mounted to the docking station.

Heat dissipation is critical in all notebooks and is difficult when the notebook is ruggedized and does not have an external fan for cooling. Again, field testing is the best way to determine the best solution for your agency in your specific environment.

Fixed-screen solutions are another option for agencies looking to provide a bigger and sometimes brighter screen for their applications. Some mobile software requires a large touch screen for their software graphic user interface (GUI). User interaction with gloves may be required, and larger screens are better in these types of software applications with large buttons. This is particularly useful in a command vehicle application where clearly displayed information is more critical than mobile report entry.

Fixed-screen solutions often provide a detachable keyboard, which alleviates the need for an officer to sit twisted in the police vehicle while writing a lengthy report. Having to sit in a police vehicle while twisted and typing on a keyboard has serious OH&S implications and is not recommended.

Panasonic (www.panasonic.com/ toughbook), L-3 (www.l-3com.com) and Data911 (www.data911.com) all offer a ruggedized fixed-screen solution. They are all Windows OS-based and offer the flexibility to integrate thermal imaging and in-car video to the hardware package along with other peripherals.

If your agency requires in-vehicle printers or barcode readers, then compatibility should be tested in the field. Panasonic offers the fully integrated package with a fixed-screen solution called the Arbitrator. This purpose-built video solution offers fixed screen, along with an onboard video camera fully integrated into an agency’s mobile software solution.

No matter what the solution, mounting and docking systems are not all alike. Be careful when putting together your agency’s in-vehicle ergonomic setup. Try some different setups, and then ensure they get put out in the field for “real” testing. Setting up a mock configuration at a desk in an office or on a table at a trade show is NOT a field test.

Consider using docking station vendors that are partnered with computer vendors. This way, the two are typically fully integrated and airbag compliant. A good laptop docking system is specifically designed for each specific law enforcement vehicle from a Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor to a Chevrolet Pursuit Tahoe or Dodge Charger.

Radio frequency (RF) pass-through to an external antenna is a must in any mobile computing solution. The antenna is always the weak link, and getting that RF outside the vehicle is not only safer but allows for better reception. Precision Mounting Technologies (www.precisionmounts.com) of Calgary Alberta Canada makes some of the best mobile computing solutions for all computer vendors’ hardware. All its docking solutions are airbag compliant and are made from aircraft aluminum and military tested to withstand serious impacts.

Antenna products have come a long way in the past few years. Most agencies that choose an external antenna have gone low profile. These low-profile designs are more cost effective, less obtrusive, less prone to damage from car washes or vandalism and easier to install.

Recently, AntennaPlus (www.anten naplus.com) has come up with a combination antenna that saves time and money by combining multiple antennas in one. The AP-Navigator 4X is a four-in-one solution, ideal for Panasonic Toughbook users who want to have Cellular, Wi-Fi and GPS. Because only two embedded wireless technologies can be passed through to a docking station, you need a way to do the third technology—GPS.

Inside the Navigator low-profile housing, AntennaPlus provides a Trimble GPS receiver, GPS antenna, Cellular antenna and Wi-Fi antenna. So, all of your antennas and your GPS receiver are in this one unit. This means you drill one hole in the vehicle, and installation is quicker and more cost effective. The AP Navigator 4X Antenna™ is a full two-way communicating GPS receiver, able to provide 10-foot accuracy. GPS protocols include TSIP, TAIP, TRCM, and NMEA. This means that every AVL software and Internet mapping solution will work with this GPS receiver.

For years, agencies have struggled with the dilemma whether or not to let officers remove the laptops from the vehicle in order to provide an ergonomically correct setup for lengthy report entry. If an agency chooses a fixed-screen solution, then there is usually no ability to maintain wireless connectivity outside the vehicle unless a handheld hardware solution is added.

Some vendors offer the fixed-screen solution with the central processing unit (CPU) being a clamshell laptop mounted in the trunk. This provides benefits from both solutions but is typically more expensive and often more support intensive. If an agency chooses a fixed-screen solution with detachable keyboards, how is the keyboard secured during airbag deployment or side impact?

Again, testing and talking to agencies with experience will provide the answers you require to make the right decision. Usually, the fixed-screen solution requires an “in vehicle” wireless modem solution or router that allows for one or multiple wireless technologies.

When choosing a ruggedized removable laptop solution, serious consideration must be given to installing the wireless modem of choice in the notebook (imbedded) as opposed to the vehicle. This will ensure wireless connectivity outside the vehicle. Some agencies prefer an in-vehicle modem or combination router as they do not allow removable laptops.

Remember, if you don’t let the laptops come out of the vehicle, then you really don’t want officers doing true mobile reporting. The idea of offering a secondary detachable keyboard is a cost-effective solution that may allow an officer to be static in the police vehicle and enter a lengthy report. Many agencies feel this is not safe, nor is it the best ergonomic solution.

Allowing the laptop out of the vehicle allows officers to write reports at community police stations in their assigned patrol areas or in specifically designed report-writing rooms were the laptops dock into desktop docking stations. The officers then sit at an ergonomically correct desk and use a standard keyboard and regular computer screen. If the laptops are configured with imbedded wireless modems, then connectivity to CAD and all databases is maintained throughout the report entry process.

Wireless configuration is an ever-changing technology that has its challenges for law enforcement. Today, most agencies look to a commercial cell carrier to provide wireless data. Some agencies are fortunate to have their own infrastructure for data radio or Wi-Fi hotspots that allow for better independence and security.

For the most part, the current 3G technologies offered in North America are fast enough to support almost all law enforcement applications, including streaming video. The issue has always been hardware compatibility and middleware conflicts that become costly in the long run.

Qualcomm (www.qualcomm.com) is changing the way we look at wireless with a new solution called “Gobi” Global Mobile Internet. Essentially, the entire continent of North America and most areas in Europe have become one big hotspot. What does Gobi stand for? Apparently “Go Be Wireless.” This new solution could be the biggest change to wireless in the history of mobile computing.

The Gobi solution is a new imbedded chipset radio module, fully integrated new technology that is essentially a “software modem” that talks to all 3G frequencies regardless of the provider. This allows the user complete flexibility to choose whatever technology is stronger or has better coverage in a specific geographical location. No more removing PCMCIA cards or swapping hardware modems.

A change of technology simply means a quick firmware flash upgrade. Gobi features include improved signal strength, better upload and download speeds, much better stability and no hardware compatibility issues.

This is an enormous advantage for big agencies that have to provide wireless connectivity over a large geographical area. Currently, these agencies may have several different wireless providers with several different software and hardware configurations that make support even more complicated.

Gobi removes all of these issues and allows for a single specification when ordering and for supporting. Federal agencies will love this feature, considering they may have multiple configurations across the entire country. Simple is always much more cost effective and reliable in terms of IT time and support.

This increased wireless connectivity also allows for a host of handheld or PDA solutions for agencies that need portability while still maintaining crucial functionality. Everyone is familiar with the BlackBerry (www.blackberry.com) or “Crackberry” as it come to be known by addicted users.

The BlackBerry is not only an administrative PDA. Software vendors are now providing versions of their CAD and mobile software in a compatible format that allows for display on a BlackBerry or other PDA.

Versaterm Inc. (www.versaterm.com) is one of the software vendors that has been successful in compressing its mobile software into a very functional BlackBerry format that allows foot or bike officers the ability to get CAD data and full person and vehicle query along with messaging. Many vendors offer fingerprint recognition, barcode drivers license swipes and pen-based electronic ticketing all bundled in a handheld device.

Panasonic recently released its newest handheld device, the U1, a completely new rugged handheld. It features a color touchscreen, 2.0 mega pixel camera, GPS, barcode reader, fingerprint reader, and fully functional wireless (3G EVDO & HSDPA). A big change is the introduction of the solid state HDD in a rugged handheld device.

It is Panasonic’s view that this device is not to replace the in-vehicle computer, but simply to extend the range of direct wireless access to critical information. One key benefit is that its operating system is Windows OS-based, so there is no need for modifying software or creating special images within an agency’s IT shop. Once again, simple is more cost effective and less support intensive.

Today’s mobile office continues to get more value added features and is becoming less expensive. Don’t get caught by a fancy tradeshow booth that shows water pouring onto a laptop while the laptop remains fully operational.

First, put together a fully functional project team that is composed primarily of operational front-line users. Then by reviewing your current business processes, determining exactly what you need, researching and testing various solutions, you will be able to implement a successful mobile solution in your agency.

Brad Brewer is a sergeant with the Vancouver Police Department. He can be reached at brad.brewer@vpd.ca.


Published in Law and Order, Aug 2008

Rating : 10.0


Comments

Comment on This Article

Director, Information Systems

By Gary Aslanian

When considering a laptop MDC one needs to take into account the possibility fo the laptop being lost or stolen and include proper security. Encrypting the hard disk, employing a security token, and other options add cost to the project but are necessary.

Submitted Aug 25 at 9:59 AM

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