Considerations for future-proofing mobile computing purchases

When replacing an aging mobile computing fleet, police agencies must consider how to future-proof their replacement technology


By PoliceOne Staff

Computers inside patrol cars have become as common as the lightbars on top of the vehicles. However, just like the remarkable changes we’ve seen in lighting technology, those workhorse computers have evolved significantly.

At times, change has happened quickly, and some departments have found that big investments in technology quickly became obsolete. After personnel and vehicles, technology is probably the largest expense for an agency, and you want equipment to serve the needs of your personnel as long as possible. However, serving effectively is about much more than simply “lasting a long time.”

If your in-car computers are reaching the end of their life or they're not keeping up with your other systems, several important factors should be considered when purchasing your next generation of mobile computing. (Photo/PoliceOne)
If your in-car computers are reaching the end of their life or they're not keeping up with your other systems, several important factors should be considered when purchasing your next generation of mobile computing. (Photo/PoliceOne)

If your in-car computers are reaching the end of their life or they're not keeping up with your other systems, several important factors should be considered when purchasing your next generation of mobile computing. The goal is to future-proof your in-car systems so that they can evolve with tech advancements.

Survey Your Current Situation

Start by assessing your current operational capabilities and systems. This will provide important foundational information because it's likely your agency's tech is a system of systems with a degree of interdependency.

You’ll want to ensure that the new tech will support your baseline operational requirements and be capable of reliably handling future needs. An objective assessment should include asking your personnel (especially those who are tech-inclined) to identify any existing shortcomings. As an example, you might hear that the current displays aren’t bright enough to be seen in daylight or that the touchscreen doesn’t work with gloves (a big consideration if you’re in an area that regularly sees cold weather). Also, ask open-ended questions designed to elicit suggested features or functionality.

Policing environments can vary greatly so there is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Some of the best solutions are those that give you options so that you can support your specific operational needs. The following are important features and capabilities that should be considered when choosing a computer for your in-field operations. If you've done a thorough assessment as described above, you'll find that making the right choices will come much easier.

Durability

The police vehicle environment has never been kind to technology. The combination of weather extremes, long shifts, vehicle vibration, stressed electrical systems and high levels of electromagnetic interference mean that purpose-built (designed for public safety) rugged or semi-rugged devices are going to be needed.

Although it might seem obvious to go with the most rugged equipment available, this may not be necessary in all situations. Unlike the days when computers were new to patrol cars, today’s personnel are more apt to be “kinder” to technology because they’ve grown up with devices that required a certain degree of respect and virtually everyone has learned how to treat their smartphone so that it lasts more than a couple of months.

Consider what your experience has been with device reliability and determine how much ruggedness is required in your situation. A commonly used standard to be aware of is MIL-STD-810G and includes areas like drops, shocks, temps, rain, sand and dust. Any computer that claims to be rugged should be able to pass MIL-STD-810G certification.

Another frequently seen standard is IP65, which has to do with ingress protection from solids (the first number) and liquids (the second number). In the case of IP65, the rating means that the unit offers complete protection against dust and the unit can withstand water from a nozzle up to 6.3 mm projected from any direction – thus assuring rain won’t be a problem).

Keep in mind that there is usually a direct correlation between the degree of ruggedness and the bulk and weight of a device.

Mobility

Today’s policing demands that officers be able to access information and maintain core functionality beyond the patrol car. After all, increased community engagement is now an expectation and that’s stifled if the primary information source can’t be removed from the patrol car.

Look for a dockable solution that provides maximum flexibility and convenience. Remember that size, weight and ease of removal are key factors that impact whether an officer will use the system away from the vehicle.

Consider a unit that can function as both a laptop and a tablet, sometimes referred to as a hybrid. This gives you options that can expand operational capabilities, such as gathering photographic evidence with built-in cameras or supporting an electronic citation capability. Regarding the latter, remember that the electronic equivalent of a "wet" signature is required in most states so the tablet will likely need to support the use of a stylus.

Display and Ergonomic Considerations

Displays should provide adequate brightness for use in full daylight while supporting officer safety with the ability to easily dim at night.

Be mindful of the dimensions of your display and where it is placed so that it doesn’t interfere with airbag deployments.

Some setups allow for a degree of tilt and swivel and this can be beneficial when two officers are assigned to a car. However, before you make that assumption, put a couple of good-sized officers in the car along with a mockup of how the unit will be mounted and accessed. Be aware of ergonomics and try to minimize the amount of intrusion into the passenger compartment to minimize officer injury in the event of a crash.

Tech Specs

Technical specifications should reflect the latest generation (or next to) processor. You can save money by buying units with less capable processors but they're unlikely to support your expectations within a year or two.

On-board storage should be solid state because it’s more reliable and withstands vehicle vibration. The amount of storage will vary by agency based on operational expectations and whether the agency will be moving to a virtual environment. Suffice to say, buy more than what you think you will need. Take a look at what your current units are using and whether the storage is meeting the needs. This will provide a good starting point.

An important tech spec that often gets overlooked is the number and type of ports, as well as the ease with which they can be accessed. USB has become a common means of connecting peripherals and transferring data. The latest version is USB 3 with USB 4 expected to begin showing up in devices during the latter part of 2020. The higher the number, the greater the speed. Fortunately, USB connections are backward compatible so flash drives specified to earlier USB versions will still work. However, it's best to get a unit with multiple USB ports that are (preferably) USB 3. Make sure that they're easily accessible and that the connections or flash drives that you use will fit. Sometimes ruggedization causes ports to be somewhat less accommodating and that can frustrate users.

When it comes to RAM (random access memory), get as much as you can reasonably afford. This will ensure quick startups and better support multiple-program operation. Check to see if memory can be expanded if needed. Having this as an option will give you peace of mind going forward.

Connectivity

Evaluate your connectivity options: cellular networks, mesh, Wi-Fi, LAN, etc. The way that data transfers take place varies greatly among agencies. Some agencies will simply buy a computer with built-in LTE mobile broadband and rely on that. Others will go so far as to use a multi-frequency dual-sim mobile router and mobile VPN solution to allow for seamless transition between multiple carriers while maintaining persistence even when the cellular connection is temporarily lost. This type of setup can be flexible enough to move between mesh networks, cellular carriers and secure Wi-Fi, allowing maximum opportunity to achieve the best connection possible.

Note: For agencies that are utilizing FirstNet, make sure to check devices for FirstNet certification.

Power

Laptops and tablets run on batteries and officers will need sufficient power to get them through their shift at a minimum. When you're evaluating this, remember that the unit will often be in the vehicle and receiving a charge. Nonetheless, longer battery life is highly desirable so check the specs on continuous run time. Also, some units can have a second battery as an option and to allow for a hot-swap that lets the computer continue to function without shutting down or rebooting. Depending on the specific need, this may be an important capability for your agency.

Security Features

Security is important, especially in a public safety environment. Following are features or options that merit consideration:

  • Trusted platform module (TPM) security chip;
  • Theft protection agent (think Lo-Jack);
  • Fingerprint scanner;
  • Smart Card reader;
  • Windows Hello face authentication camera;
  • Low frequency/High-frequency RFID;
  • Locking mechanism or cable.

Criminal Justice Information System

A note about CJIS compliance: Much of the data accessed by law enforcement is subject to Criminal Justice Information System requirements. CJIS intends to protect the criminal justice database systems and the sensitive data associated with personal information. Non-compliance can result in denial of access to key information sources. It is likely that your agency already has systems and protocols that ensure CJIS compliance. However, it is the responsibility of the agency to ensure compliance is retained as new systems are put into place. CJIS processes can be somewhat complex and are well beyond the scope of this article. It is highly recommended that guidance be sought from the person in the agency or region who is responsible for CJIS compliance when introducing new hardware solutions to a fleet.

Conclusion

Technology is a big investment but it’s also an important force multiplier for the officers in your agency. Although it involves some homework and commitment, it’s important to remember that with change comes opportunity and this is a chance to move your agency forward in a very positive way. Properly utilized, a new generation of mobile-centric technology will provide greater efficiency and can even improve officer safety through heightened situational awareness. That's a win-win.

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