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Connecting San Diego’s Police Helicopters

Equipped with an AT&T 4G LTE SIM card, the San Diego Police Department’s helicopters are now able to more quickly and efficiently communicate crucial information with ground units.

Years ago, when encrypted frequencies were a commodity, the San Diego Police Department’s air unit used text messaging to communicate large amounts of sensitive data. Texts would be sent from the ground directly to the tactical flight officer’s (TFO) cell phone. It proved inefficient for dispatch to try to convey full addresses and other information through the noise via radio, tying it up while the TFO scribbled down information with pen and paper.

Chief Pilot Todd Jager remembered thinking that there must be a better option than texting, considering he was flying in multi-million-dollar machines.

The police department’s aircraft are Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3s, which have been in service now for some 12 years. Jager told GCA Link that when those helicopters were purchased in the early 2000s — during the 3G days — they were supposed to be able to use the available network to connect to the ground. However, the reception quality while the aircraft was in the air was too poor, and that datalink was basically unusable.

It didn’t make sense to Jager, though, that such a network could not work in an airborne aircraft. How could there not be some technical way to make it functional? And a couple years after 4G was released in 2010, he met someone who would join in his search for an answer.

Flashback to six years ago at a Fourth of July barbeque at the Jager household, when the police department was still using text messaging.

Right before going to work, Jager was chatting with a man who, it turned out, worked as a specialized network customer service representative for AT&T. That gave Jager the perfect opening to express his connectivity puzzlement.

“I explained to him our inability to communicate in any way, shape or form with the ground, but at the same time my perplexity at the fact that most guys can sit in the helicopter with their cell phones and communicate pretty well,” Jager said.

The man couldn’t himself think of an answer to Jager’s perplexity. There were plenty of reasons a cellular network used in that way might not work correctly. But he couldn’t think of a reason why it could not work at all.

So with Jager’s permission, the AT&T rep asked experts at the company what they thought of the concept. Even though Jager did not expect to hear back from AT&T, he did. As it turned out, none of the experts could label Jager’s concept as “technically impossible.”

“Because of the operating altitude of most law enforcement agencies (1,500 to 3,000 ft), the ability to connect to the cellular network does exist and could be leveraged in other markets as well as agencies for non-critical aircraft connectivity,” said Chris Roy, VP of public sector, government education solutions west at AT&T.

The only thing left to do was to try it out.

AT&T suggested a hardware vendor — In Motion Technology, which Sierra Wireless acquired in 2014. With no installation required, Jager said the hardware worked much like a “super-high-end Wi-Fi router” might — a router that could also communicate on its own with 4G long-term evolution, or LTE. As long as there was a power source, the solution could function.

The police department’s aircraft are Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3s, which have been in service now for some 12 years.Photo courtsey of Althepal / CC BY-SA 2.5

Essentially, the answer to Jager’s years of questions comes down to a black box and some AT&T SIM cards, using only one cannon plug located underneath the back seat.

Public service agencies and other companies with fleets of vehicles were no strangers to In Motion technology. Jager noted that the solution was designed for police and firefighting mobile communications — fleets of ground vehicles, that is.

“The connected helicopter solution was made possible by leveraging proven ground-based in-vehicle connected solutions, such as ruggedized routers, into an unproven and tested above-ground, aerial application,” said Roy. “To do so, AT&T removed the device’s ability to communicate over the LTE network using Band 5, 850 (MHz). The removal of Band 5 made it possible to perform speed, altitude and throughput testing to insure the requirements of the customer could be met and that the solution could support their use case.”

During the first trial, Jager recalled, there was a bundle of four antennae on the floor of the helicopter.

Even though the AT&T-air unit team had tested the solution successfully in the office on the ground, Jager was expecting it to quit as soon as the helicopter doors closed and the aircraft began to lift.

But as the aircraft hover-taxied around the base, it worked. At 50 ft agl, it worked. So, with his TFO in the front beside him, Jager put the solution to the test.

“I proceeded to spend the next two hours trying to break it,” he said. “I went as high as I could, as fast as I could, around the backside of mountains. I did everything I could, and it didn’t break.”

Not only did it not break, but the solution allowed the crew to download flight telemetry. As an added bonus, it provided the crew exact times and locations, as well as the level of connectivity that was being produced. The aircraft did not previously have GPS-tracking capability.

Roy said the tracking is possible due to a dedicated host management solution that is accessible to the customer. The company “matched the appropriate hardware to the requirements of the customer,” he continued, “to provide in-aircraft wired and wireless networking.” The solution can also be easily duplicated with correct power and mounting requirements.

“I was blown away,” Jager said. “I instantaneously thought: ‘This is it. I don’t know what we need to do to get this, but this is what we need.’”

Turns out that to get it, Jager and the team had to jump through some proverbial hoops. There were those presented within the department by its information technology unit. There were those presented by the city of San Diego that required proof the solution worked and proof of secure datalinks.

Jager learned the signal could be scrambled and made accessible only to intended parties. With sophisticated use of VPNs and dedicated communication lines, the solution would be good to go. But security and safety concerns are never that simple. Jager said it took four years to hold all meetings and briefings necessary to clear the hoops.

“Just like a hurricane,” Jager described, the air unit was given the go-ahead. “I envisioned that the [TFO] would have a tablet in [his or her] hand that would have no power cords going to it, no communication cords going to it — yet [he or she] would be able to sit there and look at the same [information], and at the same time, that a police officer sitting in his car on his laptop computer can see,” Jager said. “And we’ve come pretty darn close to that.”

Pretty close, indeed. Dispatch can send information directly to the TFO who can then access it on a tablet. — enabling faster response times for the helicopter.

The new method has not changed how the air unit handles high-intensity pursuits and other crimes in progress. Voice communication is still used, as it’s the fastest mode. When the helicopter needs to respond more quickly, the TFO can’t be facedown in the mobile communications terminal, Jager explained.

But the connectivity solution is particularly useful, he continued, when there’s a complex case with many details. For example, if a suspect is wanted by another agency that thinks the suspect is in the police department’s jurisdiction, the air unit can receive all the details — location, vehicle description — via tablet.

Or the TFO can use the tablet to see what calls are holding. When there are multiple events happening at once, available ground units respond to high-priority events first. Lower-priority events get put on hold, although they still require a response. The tablet allows the TFO to see these on-hold events. And if the helicopter is performing a routine patrol near one of them, it can fly over, check out the scene and potentially save a patrol car from responding to an event that has already ended.

Getting all that data on one screen, Jager said, is better than getting it in a series of text messages.

As for the telemetry data, concerns of losing an aircraft in rural areas have decreased as the data can show where the aircraft was the last time it was connected. Considering the aircraft did not previously have GPS tracking, the capability is a big deal. But telemetry data can also be used in situations like noise complaints to prove an aircraft was or was not in a certain location and for how long.

In the two years the San Diego Police Department Air Support Unit has been using the AT&T solution, there have been no connectivity problems. But there had been issues with security protocols. As Jager noted, it doesn’t take more than one glitch to create a domino effect. But AT&T’s 4G LTE network is reliable and affordable, he said. The department was able to purchase the solutions at the time for $2,000 each.

Jager finally got his answers, after years of asking the connectivity questions. “That’s why in the past that it never worked — because no outside vendor ever cared enough to make it work,” he said. GCA Link