Adding military 'Spec Ops' technology to the squad car

Rockwell Collins iForce allows officers to control all vehicle electronics such as lights, sirens, radios, radar, and video cameras

A month or so ago, I had the opportunity to do a brief ride-along in a demo squad car outfitted with a new technology solution from Rockwell Collins called iForce. Originally introduced at IACP 2010 in Orlando last October, this was really my first opportunity to spend a bit of quality time with the folks from Rockwell Collins and check out the new offering. In describing this technology, the company uses words like “integrated vehicle electronics solution” with “a Linux-based, high-assurance computer that allows users to control all vehicle electronics such as lights, sirens, radios, radar, and video cameras.”

For me, the words that came immediately to mind when I saw it were, “clean, compact, elegant, ergonomic, and rugged.” Words that continue to ring in my head weeks later are “officer safety, officer safety, and officer safety!”

Roots in the Air
About a week and a half after the Wright brothers did their thing at Kitty Hawk, I used to do a little flying. OK, not really that long ago, but long enough ago that it feels like an entirely different lifetime. Despite the decades that have passed, I have many vivid memories of my times aloft, and one of the most notable was when I got to fly an Agusta A109A from Westchester County Airport down to the 34th Street Heliport in Manhattan, on to Teterboro in New Jersey, and then back to HPN (my instructor friend did the take-offs and landings, but I had the controls the rest of the time!).

iForce is a Linux-based, high-assurance computer that allows users to control all vehicle electronics such as lights, sirens, radios, radar, and video cameras. It is also clean, compact, elegant, ergonomic, and rugged. (Image by Rockwell Collins)
iForce is a Linux-based, high-assurance computer that allows users to control all vehicle electronics such as lights, sirens, radios, radar, and video cameras. It is also clean, compact, elegant, ergonomic, and rugged. (Image by Rockwell Collins)

Anyway, as soon as I got into the demo squad, I had flashbacks to that trip. First off, the gizmo that Rockwell Collins calls the “Hand Control Device” looks and feels like a cross between the cyclic and the collective (the two hand controls of a helicopter). Secondly, the way in which the technology was laid out in the car’s cockpit was reminiscent of stuff you’d find in an aircraft. For example, iForce offers three ways to control all electronics: the color touch-screen display, the abovementioned HCD controller, and a voice activation system.

The reasons for this are simple: The iForce program from Rockwell Collins can be traced directly back to work the company has done for the Night Stalkers — the 160th SOAR special operations unit of the United States Army that flies folks like the Navy SEALs in and out of places like Abbottabad, Pakistan — and others in the United States military services.

Solving Multiple Problems
Following my demo ride, I spoke via phone with Preston Johnson, who retired from the US Army in 2005 as a Lieutenant Colonel (Special Forces) and is presently the Manager of Rockwell Collins Marketing and Strategy for the Soldier, Ground Vehicle, and Public Safety Businesses. Johnson explained, “The iForce program began with our work with the California Highway Patrol.

“They were refitting their entire fleet of cars and we took what was a system we’d developed for military vehicles and showed them the possibilities that it could have for a police car. They liked what they saw — it solved several problems for them. Number one, they were basically out of real estate in the front of their vehicles, and because they have such a wide jurisdiction and have so many different radios in their vehicles, the ability of iForce to do cross-banding was something they were very interested in. Then, the ability to put the vehicle repeater system that allowed them to repeat their handheld radios through the vehicle to get much, much longer range from their handhelds when they’re away from their cars,” Johnson said.

You can cross patch up to eight separate radios in the trunk-mounted racks and control all of them from the touch-screen display or the voice-activation system. While this cannot be construed as “communications interoperability” in the classic (as well as idealistic and yet un-realized) sense, it does fix the problem of not being able to talk with your neighbors (assuming, of course, you’ve bought all of those radios).

The voice-activation system can be used to do a wide variety of things, from controlling your lights and sirens to switching channels on your FM radio. You can also use the voice activation system to keep voice notes of the people and things you observe out on patrol. This memo capability has a lot of potential.

“Say you’re coming up to a domestic violence call and you see a vehicle exiting the area. You don’t have time to write down the license number but you can touch the screen and say ‘memo’ and note that right then and there. Now you can discover later that was the assailant or something, and you have placed that vehicle at the scene of the crime.”

According to Rockwell Collins, this memo is chain-of-evidence secure, although I haven’t confirmed that point with my on-staff attorneys.

Ergonomics and Officer Safety
By simple virtue of having the ability to talk with your car — negating the need to move your hands from the controls to manipulate various switches and dials, you’re ergonomically just in a better position to respond to the changing environment round you. The “soft keys” on the HCD are “configurable” to control a wide variety of things, so with your left paw on the wheel and the right paw on that controller, you can perform countless numbers of functions.

There’s another thing about the ergonomics issue that merits our attention. I mentioned at the top that the demo squad reminded me of a flight deck. Like in an aircraft cockpit, much of the electronic hardware has been removed from the front of the vehicle, creating a much safer and more efficient work environment for patrol officers.

“One of the things we’re learning from the law enforcement community is that they appreciate how you can add components to the open-system architecture without having to redesign and add stuff to the inside of the cockpit.” said Johnson. “I was visiting with a large Sheriff’s Department from Wisconsin and one of the things they said was, ‘Every time we decide to add another piece of equipment, we have to figure out where to put it in the interior of all our cars.’ With iForce, that’s not a problem. If you want to add a video system, all you have to figure out is where to mount the camera. We can just integrate the camera through software. A lot of departments are looking at adding license plate readers. If you start out with an iForce system with lights and sirens and radio and video and a year from now you decide to add LPRs, nothing on the inside of the vehicle would change. The apertures go on the outside of the vehicle and the cockpit is completely unchanged,” Johnson explained.

“The last time I checked, CHP had wrecked three iForce-equipped vehicles, and in all three cases iForce was still running after the wreck. In one case, the officer took an off ramp too fast and ended up crushing in the driver’s side door. He was able to scoot right across the seat an exit the passenger side because the installation takes up so much less space than they’d had to deal with before.”

There’s one other ergonomics-and-officer-safety-go-hand-in-hand feature I haven’t mentioned yet. That center console — already incredibly small — can be easily collapsed out of the way altogether so an officer can quickly exit the vehicle on the passenger side should the driver’s side door become inoperable. Bam! Just gone just like that. Very, very cool.

Better then “Five Nines” Reliability
All of the computing power that runs this system runs on an entirely different ‘box” than your MDT. This, too, goes back to the Night Stalkers.

The mission-essential software runs on a high-assurance, Linux-based computer which is the same kind of computer architecture that we use in our military flight deck systems. The computer box, the enclosure, also has within it a separate Windows computing module that will run whatever Windows-based programs you need.

“None of the mission-critical components are running on the Windows computing system, were you can get that ‘blue screen of death.’ Not to knock Windows, but you can’t afford for that stuff to just go dark on you. We build those systems for the 160th. When you’re flying over the mountains of Afghanistan, in a snow storm, at night, fifty feet off the ground, with people shooting at you — if that cockpit goes dark, everyone on that aircraft is going to die. So we’re accustomed to building systems where failure of the system is simply not an option.”

Find out more at the Rockwell Collins website.

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