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Since the earliest days of airborne law enforcement, the situational clarity provided by an “eye in the sky” has been vital to the success of countless operations. For decades, ground commanders relied on well-trained tactical flight officers (TFOs) to verbally communicate that big-picture perspective. In recent years, downlinking technology has allowed agencies to supplement the TFO’s narrative with real-time video feeds, providing the bird’s-eye view of a perimeter or pursuit directly to the people in charge.
“They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and that’s absolutely true,” said Sergeant Eric Weidner, who oversaw the implementation of downlinking during his time at the Ontario (California) Police Department Air Support Unit. According to Weidner, downlinking has “become the kind of thing that we use on a weekly basis or even a daily basis.” For the agency to go back to the old way, he said, “would be like turning off the picture on your TV and listening to it just with sound.”
Now, new technologies promise to further evolve the role of law enforcement helicopters and TFOs. The development of sophisticated digital mapping systems and the ability to transfer data both to and from the aircraft are opening up possibilities that, just a few years ago, might have seemed unimaginable. Ground commanders are no longer limited to the same screen view as the TFO — the digital transfer of metadata allows them to turn on overlays that the TFO might have turned off. Meanwhile, GPS and identifying data from ground officers’ radios can be “uplinked” into the TFO’s own mapping system, giving the TFO a real-time display of who and where everyone is.
Weidner is retiring from the Ontario PD this summer, but he will be staying on the forefront of airborne law enforcement technology as one of four partners in CNC Technologies, a newly formed aviation technology and wireless communications company serving the law enforcement, government, and military markets. In advance of the 2016 Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) Expo in Savannah, Georgia, CNC’s partners spoke with Vertical 911 about the latest solutions available to law enforcement operators, and how the company is helping its customers implement them.
Although CNC Technologies was only incorporated in January of this year, its principals aren’t new to the business. Managing partners Alex Giuffrida and Ron Magocsi were previously involved with Helinet Technologies, which they left following the tragic death of Helinet chairman Alan Purwin in a plane crash in September 2015. To launch CNC Technologies, they partnered with Weidner and Clay Thom, the owner of the exotic car dealership CNC Motors in Ontario, California. The company is headquartered in Ontario, but will have its main service facility in Linden, New Jersey.
As Giuffrida described it, “We provide technology that allows for the movement of any type of data.” Traditionally, this has meant line-of-sight microwave downlinking systems, but it has come to include other types of wireless and satellite transmissions, too. Although this type of technology can be incorporated on virtually any moving platform, most of CNC’s customers utilize it on aircraft, with about 65 percent of the company’s installations involving helicopters, and 35 percent fixed-wing aircraft.
For CNC’s primarily law enforcement and government customers, the company provides specialized expertise that is often missing from their own agencies. “Downlinking technology requires a lot of engineering technology and know-how,” said Giuffrida, noting that many law enforcement agencies may have avionics and information technology (IT) specialists, but no one to bridge the gap between them. And the number of outside experts who can fill this role is limited. Said Giuffrida, “There aren’t too many companies that know aircraft inside and out, and know downlinking inside and out.”
When CNC is working directly with a law enforcement customer, the first step is to visit with the agency to determine exactly what its needs are. “We first ask them, what is your department looking to do in the mission?” Giuffrida explained. “Obviously all of this stuff can get very expensive, so you really have to manage mission requirements and budgets.” Once the agency has identified the type of solution that best fits its needs, it will undergo any necessary procurement process. When the contracts have been awarded, Giuffrida said, CNC will “manage the integration of all this into the aircraft from day one.” This includes a bench test partway through the installation process and a commissioning at the integration facility, followed by another commissioning at the customer’s facility. CNC will then provide 24/7 customer support for as long as the customer requests it.
Giuffrida noted that, increasingly, law enforcement agencies are choosing their helicopters to fit their mission equipment, rather than the other way around. “One of the things that has taken place in the past six years is that the mission suite has taken a primary role,” he said. “Before it was more of an afterthought; now it’s front and center.” This means that airframe original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are starting to receive much more sophisticated inquiries from customers about possible mission suites, but the OEMs themselves may not be fully up to speed on the available technology.
Here, too, CNC is available to help (and the company already has contracts with Airbus Helicopters, Inc., Bell Helicopter, and Pilatus Aircraft). “When a customer reaches out to the OEM, we can support them as part of their mission suite team,” Giuffrida explained. Not only does having that support available help sell aircraft, it also relieves the OEM of ongoing liability for the mission equipment. “Once we implement the solution, we assume all the liability on the mission suite,” said Giuffrida. “The OEM no longer has that liability, which has been a source of headaches for the OEM because they don’t have that kind of expertise.”
The Tip of the Iceberg
Keeping up with the ever-evolving landscape of airborne law enforcement technology can be a challenge. CNC managing partner Ron Magocsi’s background is in electronic news gathering and broadcasting, and he recalled that when he first got involved with public safety downlinking around seven years ago, “broadcast technology was leaps and bounds ahead of law enforcement. Slowly, that has changed.”
Whereas broadcasters are still primarily concerned with the same objective they’ve had for decades — “getting an image from point A to point B and putting it up on the air” — law enforcement operators are increasingly taking advantage of the ability to transmit large amounts of data to find new and better ways to do their mission. “It’s not just video downlink; it’s data, a lot of data,” Magocsi said. “It has become less video engineering, and more IT engineering.”
Airborne law enforcement operators have only started to scratch the surface of the new capabilities enabled by today’s technology. Augmented reality mapping systems provide a huge advantage to flight crews in the air, but the overlays that are most useful for a TFO aren’t always the overlays that are most useful for a ground commander. As previously mentioned, sending video feeds and metadata separately can give ground commanders more flexibility in how they use those video feeds, without compromising the TFO’s effectiveness. And beaming information — such as GPS and identifying data from police officers’ radios — back into those mapping systems can provide TFOs with an even better picture of how things are unfolding on the ground.
This “bi-directional linking” can even be used to send video back to the helicopter. For example, in the recent mass shooting at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, police used a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, or BearCat, to punch through the club wall and end the standoff. In similar incidents in the future, bi-directional linking could be used to transmit a BearCat’s video feed to a helicopter overhead, allowing a TFO to better anticipate a suspect’s movements. “That’s kind of the tip of the iceberg of what these bi-directional links are bringing to the table,” said Magocsi.
While the capabilities of mapping systems, cameras, and downlinking systems are constantly improving, the equipment itself is becoming smaller, lighter, and easier to install. This reflects the evolution of technology in general; as Magocsi observed, “Five years ago, for your cell phone to do what it’s doing today, it would have had to have been the size of a suitcase.” Large antennas have shrunk to small pods. The integration of controls into touchscreen mapping systems has freed up space on the instrument panel, and the ability to beam video to tablets using wifi has eliminated the need for some hard-wired monitors, making cabin layouts more flexible.
Perhaps most importantly, technology is becoming simpler and more reliable. “I think one of the tremendous advances has been the reliability,” said Weidner. He recalled that early downlinking technology was notoriously unreliable, which could undermine the “sense of calm and control” that airborne law enforcement crews are expected to bring to tense operations. As he put it, “The flight crews will not embrace something that doesn’t work.”
All of these advancements — in capability, compactness, and reliability — are evident in CNC’s work with Airbus Helicopters, Inc. and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to upgrade the LAPD’s downlinking system with an Internet Protocol (IP)-based solution. “This is the new technology, Ethernet instead of imagery,” said Magocsi. The LAPD’s previous downlinking solution relied on converters and switches that malfunctioned more often than the agency would have liked; the transition to a digital solution has eliminated the need for them. “It’s lighter, less equipment, and it’s also fewer points of failure,” said Macogsi. “It’s great for us and it’s great for them, too.” The solution is being adopted as the LAPD upgrades from AS350 B2 to H125 (previously AS350 B3e) helicopters, and will eventually be implemented fleet-wide.
Looking to the future, Magocsi predicts that satellite technologies and wireless mesh networks will become increasingly important to airborne law enforcement operators, further improving the redundancy and reliability of communications. In the United States, the pending development of a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network also promises to play an important role in how data is transmitted within and between agencies.
All of these tools are giving law enforcement agencies the ability to respond to public safety crises more effectively and efficiently. “It allows a lot of collaboration,” said Weidner, noting that “when something big, bad, or disastrous happens,” there’s now an expectation that downlinking capabilities will be available. “It seems like we’re moving to a more unified front in how we respond to these incidents, and downlinking isn’t all of the reason for that, but it’s part of it,” he said.
With their new venture, CNC’s partners aim to ensure that when those big, bad, and disastrous events do happen, airborne law enforcement units will have every advantage technology can offer. “There are two reasons to work — one is for a good cause, the other is to make people happy,” said partner Clay Thom. With their public safety focus, the close-knit team at CNC is solidly dedicated to their “good cause.” Said Thom, “The whole group is a mirror of what I have at CNC Exotics . . . they’re a good group of people who care about what we do.”