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Hi Tech Cruisers: Controlled Through Voice Commands

By Steve Jusseaume, The Hampton Union (Hampton, N.H.)

Hampton, N.H. -- An officer on patrol engages a vehicle in a pursuit. With a push of a button, the officer activates his pursuit lights, front strobes, calls in for a record check on a license plate, and notifies both his home base and other jurisdictions of the emergency.

Through simple, instant voice messaging, the officer communicates the situation with other officers without taking his hands off the steering wheel.

Sounds like something out of "The Jetsons," perhaps, but it''s not; it''s in practice in more than 100 New Hampshire State Police patrol cars and is due to be installed in five Hampton Police Department cruisers as early as next spring.

A fully integrated, voice-operated police vehicle system, which will allow for instant communication, has been developed and designed by a research team at the University of New Hampshire. Called Project54, the system has been installed in 105 state police cruisers already. Funded through a U.S. Department of Justice grant, the system is the product of the Consolidated Advanced Technologies Laboratory (CATLab) at UNH.

A state police cruiser equipped with the system visited Hampton last week so local officials and law enforcement could see how the system works.

It allows an officer to push a button on the steering wheel, then, through voice activation, do a number of things, from turning on outside lights to calling in a license plate number for identification to switching radio channels, tasks officers have had to do manually, and separately, up to now.

Brett Vinciguerra, program director at UNH''s CATLab/Project54 and lead research engineer, said development of the system began, in part, as a response to a 1997 incident when a mortally wounded New Hampshire police officer sought shelter in a field and another drove up and was killed before he knew what was happening.

With a handheld device, which should be fully developed within a year, officers will be able to communicate from outside their vehicles, through the system in the car, Vinciguerra said.

Currently in production, as part of the system, is a handheld device, which officers can operate through the cruiser system up to 300 feet away from the car. Hampton Chief Bill Wrenn, after viewing the system Thursday morning at the town office building, said the device would be invaluable for officers walking the beat summers at Hampton Beach.

"With a couple strategically located (computer links) at the beach, our officers on walking beats could call in license plates, get records checks, all without calling into the station dispatcher," Wrenn noted.

Vinciguerra, who accompanied the state police cruiser to town, added that his team of researchers is developing an earpiece that an officer could wear, which would be wirelessly connected to the handheld device on his belt, and in turn, connected to the stationary hardware.

The U.S. Department of Justice has since 1999 funneled $27 million to UNH for research and development of the Project54 system, with more on the way.

The systems are not cheap. Vinciguerra estimated that outfitting one cruiser with the system would cost close to $10,000. In all, including servers and associated wireless panels, etc., Hampton will receive about $60,000 worth of state-of-the-art equipment.

Once installed in a cruiser, the system can be taken out and installed in another car with little trouble, Vinciguerra added.

He noted that the state police is in line for more cruiser systems, and police departments in Durham, Madbury, Hampton and at UNH are in line to get the system installed.

Wrenn noted that Hampton generally has four or five cruisers on patrol at any one time, and by this time next year, all will have the system installed.

Hampton Capt. Tim Crotts, who has been involved in the grant application process, said the system could someday be modified to fit the town''s motorcycle contingent.

"It''s in the preliminary stages, but we are hoping something can be set up with our motorcycle cops, who would carry the Palm Pilots. They could call in record checks without ever taking their hands off the handle bars," Crotts noted.

"The thing I find amazing about this is that a police officer can do everything virtually without using his hands, and with the Palm Pilot, he can run record checks, license checks, all on the street," Crotts said.

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