Easing communication with cognitive radio

In the wake of the season’s most devastating hurricane, a major metropolitan area reaches out to nearby smaller towns for law enforcement and firefighting assistance. Communication between the city’s command center and public safety professionals from these smaller areas is crucial, so the first thing those individuals providing mutual aid do when they reach the impacted area is pull out their smartphones and use an interface to search for public safety networks in range.

The scenario described above might take place much sooner than you might think. A research team from Virginia Tech has delivered a prototype device that uses an Android interface to search for nearby public safety networks, provide push-to-talk capability and create a bridge between two networks.

Charles W. Bostian, Virginia Tech alumni distinguished professor emeritus in electrical and computer engineering, says the formal goal of the Office of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice-funded project was to solve the interoperability problem by providing intelligent and affordable all-band all-mode radios that find and identify public safety networks and configure themselves to interoperate with them.

“We use the Android as an input-output device. It’s not functioning as a phone, but we use its internal computer, its speaker, its microphone and its touchscreen display. It’s connected to another device that is our radio, but there is no reason why the connection could not be wireless and no reason the phone could not switch between being used as a smartphone and being part of the radio system,” Bostian says.

The prototype radio can find signals from all public safety networks within range, then use the Android to display them to the operator and allow the operator to select one for operational use. It also can serve as a handheld gateway between any two networks or as a handheld repeater.

“Our thinking is this would be extremely useful in situations like they had in New Orleans after Katrina, or on 9/11, where a lot of the infrastructure has been destroyed,” says Bostian. “Help comes pouring in and they’re outside their mutual aid agreements. This will enable them to talk to each other, although there will still be command and control safeguards that the agencies will have to implement.”

Because the project is software-based and uses a standard radio and computer chips, Bostian thinks a manufacturer could pick up the prototype and develop it for sale in the $1,200 range, which would be much less expensive than available radios that operate on all public safety bands. Now that the prototype has been completed and delivered, he hopes that a manufacturer will become interested in producing the device commercially. In the meantime, Bostian sees the next step as building 10 to 20 prototypes for beta testing, pending receipt of funding by his successor (Bostian plans to finalize his retirement in the near future).

In addition to advocating beta testing by members of the public safety community, Bostian drew on their expertise while developing the prototype. “We have a large campus police department,” he says. “They have an interoperability problem every time there’s a football game, because they typically bring in a large number of officers from surrounding jurisdictions. There’s a command center at the top of the stadium where lieutenants or captains from the three largest forces sit with their own radios and cell phones and shout across the center at each other. If they need to communicate with an officer from a small force, someone has to go tap that officer on the shoulder.”

Bostian added that interoperability was also a huge issue during the tragic April 16, 2007 campus shooting incident.

The research team met with focus groups composed of the local public safety professionals to ensure that the Virginia Tech group fully understood the interoperability issues the public safety community faces on a routine basis.

“It was made clear to us from the start that if officers and firefighters didn’t like what we developed, they won’t use it and it will fail,” Bostian says. “We talked to them about what they wanted to see, what they like and what they don’t like about the tools they have now. We wanted to make sure they liked the display and were comfortable with it.”

Bostian says ensuring that officers’ needs were met led to the decision to use the Android, because it’s an interface they already understand and like. The same technology could be applied using an iPhone for control, he says.

For more information about the “A Public Safety Cognitive Radio on a Digital Signal Processor Platform for Affordable Interoperability” project, contact Charles Bostian at bostian@vt.edu, or NIJ Communications Program Manager Joe Heaps at (202) 841-2563 or Joseph.Heaps@usdoj.gov.

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