By Gerry Blackwell
When Islamic extremists bombed London subway stations on July 7, 2005, emergency teams from several agencies responded – police, ambulance, fire, counter-terrorism. It was a generally efficient response that saved many lives, but one glitch was mentioned in a recent government report on the incident: the first responder groups sometimes had difficulty talking to each other, because they all used different emergency communications systems.
A year to the day after the London attacks, Anvil Technologies, a Canadian wireless systems integrator, and Primetech, a U.K. satellite services company, staged a real-world demonstration of Anvil’s solution to that problem, its Wi-Fi-based RECoN system. The scene of the demo was the Aldwych subway station in central London – not one of those hit by the bombers, but typical of the city’s aging underground system.
With the RECoN Wi-Fi-network-in-a-box, emergency teams can quickly set up a secure self-configuring wireless mesh network capable of carrying voice, high-quality video and data, including data from various types of sensors, to and from a disaster site. The system also includes an interoperability hub that lets a coordination team establish a closed voice network and patch together workers using different types of handsets.
For the demonstration, Anvil and Primetech deployed a network at the Aldwych tube stop with cameras on the platform six stories below ground level transmitting audio and video through a hub unit in a van parked 100 meters down the road from the station. The hub connected to the wide area network via a Primetech satellite link. Time to set up the network: less than 10 minutes.
Anvil integrated components from a variety of vendors to create RECoN, which it refers to as “an umbrella,” a framework within which different products can be integrated according to need and availability. Chief among the company’s technology partners are wireless equipment vendor Rajant Corp. and Trilogy Communications, U.K.-based maker of the interoperability platform.
Primetech is a reseller and supplies the optional satellite communications capability, which is only needed if no other network is available – if the power grid goes down, for example. RECoN also uses streaming video technology from Mobile Data Exchange (MDEX), a Toronto company, and document management from Mindoka, another Canadian firm.
Anvil chairman John Mealin says his company went about developing RECoN differently than most organizations would. “Rather than focusing on the technology, we brought together experts in the field who helped us identify what the real needs were — and then we went out and developed a complete solution to meet those needs,” Mealin says. “We brought all the components together, and tested and proved the solution. Now we’re taking it back to the customer base.”
Anvil has already sold systems in the U.S. and Canada. For security reasons, it can’t say who has purchased its products, but they include police and intelligence organizations. It’s a good bet that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and CSIS (Canadian Security and Intelligence Service) are on the Anvil customer list. The company is also actively marketing in the U.K. through Primetech, and expects to move into the Far East soon.
At the heart of the RECoN system is BreadCrumb wireless gear from Rajant, the U.S.-based developer of a mesh networking platform designed primarily for use by emergency responders and the military. The Rajant BreadCrumb products create a self-configuring, self-healing wireless network. They’re capable of a range of up to seven to 10 miles thanks to proprietary range-extending circuitry. Many use Wi-Fi, but some also use 900MHz technology.
“We have the capability to have a fully meshed network, and we have the ability to integrate 900MHz gear into the mesh,” Mealin explains. “So when you run into situations where you’re in a building and 2.4GHz won’t penetrate, you can turn on the 900MHz and it will have no problem streaming through four, five or six stories.”
One of the key features of the Rajant technology is that it self-configures – you place access points, and they automatically find the hub and choose the optimal wireless channel. If one access point goes down, others transmitting through it will automatically find the next-closest AP. “That’s a huge advantage,” Mealin says.
Anvil used only Wi-Fi in the Aldwych tube station demo, because it didn’t need the wall-penetrating capabilities of the 900MHz technology. The company set up Rajant access points at the top and bottom of a disused elevator shaft. For redundancy and to demonstrate other ways to create a network, it also placed APs at different points along a circular stairway down to the platform.
Another key RECoN component is the interoperability platform from Trilogy. Anvil has worked with the similar Acu-1000 product from Raytheon. Both are communications hubs that allow users with cell phones, land lines, VoIP and UHF phones to talk to each other over a closed network – in this case the wireless LAN or WAN established using RECoN.
Despite the current Rajant BreadCrumb units using only 802.11b technology, Mealin describes the quality of the video transmitted in the demo as “very good,” thanks in part to the MDEX technology. “It depends on how many cameras are used, but it could go very close to 30 frames per second (full motion),” he says. “It depends what else you’re using the bandwidth for. You obviously have to be selective.”
The Rajant technology will be upgraded to provide greater bandwidth. Anvil has also engineered RECoN to use any available network resource, including WiMAX or wired Ethernet, Mealin says.
In the demonstration, a member of the Anvil team went down the stairs, placing access points along the way. He also carried a video camera connected to the wireless network, so he was able to show what he was seeing as he descended to the platform. This capability would be invaluable for letting coordinators get an immediate overview of a situation.
The Mindoka document management technology is included to make it easier to manage and move documentation around. An emergency team could access even documents with hundreds of pages – a manual for a piece of malfunctioning or damaged equipment, for example – and relay them to any emergency worker with a laptop or tablet PC in range of one of the wireless LAN segments. It might take 20 seconds to download a 1,000-page document, but then accessing any page after that would be almost instantaneous, Mealin says.
The RECoN system gives emergency coordinators the flexibility to set up multiple interconnected WLANs, with Wi-Fi used for backhauling the WLAN traffic to a central hub, which is then plugged into an existing wired, wireless or satellite network. Both hub and WLAN systems come with everything needed to set up a network segment, including six access points and a tablet PC in the case of the WLAN systems, all packaged in hard Pelican cases or soft bags.
Each case sells for about $125,000. “Customers typically don’t just buy one, though,” Mealin says. “There are often so many people at a scene, and they may have to cover a wide area. So customers are buying six, seven or a dozen bags.”
Anvil believes the RECoN technology has many other applications besides emergency response. Police could use it for street surveillance or to set up an instant crime scene network. A construction company could use RECoN to monitor a remote highway construction site, with Wi-Fi used to collect information from cameras and sensors and satellite to send it back to a central control center. The technology has already been tested successfully in mines.
“We believe demand will grow exponentially,” Mealin says.
Maybe. But interoperability problems in emergency communications are well understood. In Europe, most governments are in the process of rolling out uniform networks based on the TETRA (Terrestrial Enhanced Trunked RAdio) standard developed for public safety wireless communications. Eventually, all first responder organizations will use TETRA-based systems, solving the interoperability problem. That will take several years, though, and in the meantime, Anvil is hoping to provide a quick fix.