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Aerial Policing: Use Drones for Faster Emergency Response Time

Author: Don Gilbreath

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2018-02-12
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First responders can combine the 4.9 GHz band and UAVS for better situational awareness and pop-up wireless connectivity

Public safety entities may be able to use a tethered drone in the 4.9 GHZ frequency band. The tether connects the drone to a generator on the ground, allowing it to fly for days at a time. This permits law enforcement officials to augment their ground awareness with aerial on-the-spot connectivity, no matter where they are, providing real-time mission-critical data from wearables, cameras and other devices. 


To effectively aid and assist citizens during emergencies, first responders require total situational awareness and constant access to mission-critical data from other officers and headquarters.

However, maintaining the connectivity to access that data can be challenging in some situations. At large municipal events like parades, festivals, sporting or political events, standard methods of connectivity may not be reliable due to heavy data traffic from attendees, or may not even exist due to lack of towers, depending where the event takes place (e.g., the desert or remote fairgrounds). Additionally, it can be hard to maintain a reliable signal when responding to calls in rural areas because of lack of, or distance between, towers. This spotty connectivity can impact first responders’ situational awareness and, consequently, affect response times and personnel effectiveness.

To meet these challenges, first responders and law enforcement can leverage available technologies to better protect citizens and obtain high-quality data.

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Pairing 4.9 GHz with Drones for Faster Response

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has allocated 4940 – 4990 MHz (the 4.9 GHz Public Safety Spectrum) for voice, data and video operations by public safety entities.

Because public safety users must be licensed to use the 4.9 GHz band, and coordinate with any other public safety users in the area, use of the spectrum is highly controlled. Licensees must be state or local organizations or non-traditional public safety entities that have entered into sharing agreements with state or local public safety organizations. All communications in the band must be limited to protection of safety of life, health, or property.

Unlike unlicensed bands, which are subject to higher degrees of interference and subsequent security risks, the 4.9 GHz spectrum offers public safety entities an optimal communications environment to transmit and receive real-time, mission-critical data. First responders can take the spectrum’s capabilities a step further to improve emergency communications and rapid response during large events or in remote areas, by combining three technologies: an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, or drone), a reliable wireless mesh network and the 4.9 GHZ spectrum.

Here’s how it works: If the FAA and FCC clarify their drone rules, public safety entities may be able to use a tethered drone in the frequency band. In the interim, a municipality or city holding a 4.9 GHz license may apply to the FCC for an experimental license. The tethered drone can carry a wireless radio that joins the local ground-based mesh network, creating “pop-up” connectivity. The tether connects the drone to a generator on the ground, allowing it to fly for days at a time.

By using the drone as an instant tower to create “temporary fixed” communications networked with a ground mesh in 4.9 GHz, law enforcement officials can augment their ground awareness with aerial on-the-spot connectivity, no matter where they are, providing real-time mission-critical data from wearables, cameras and other devices.

The additional connectivity is just one benefit: By flying a camera-equipped drone to monitor a situation or event from above, law enforcement officials gain “eyes in the sky” to augment the boots on the ground and stationary cameras, creating new levels of security and ensuring a faster response. This is helpful even in areas that have cameras. Stationary ground cameras have limitations on the perspective and angle they can capture, and police can’t be everywhere at once – so tethered UAVs flying overhead create an extra layer of support.

 

Getting a 4.9 GHz License: What to Know

For public safety entities or police forces who do not currently hold a 4.9 GHz license, here’s a quick primer on how to get one:

  • You will need to obtain a license from the FCC. For mobile or temporary fixed operation. A geographic license allows operation of mobile devices or temporary (less than a year) fixed stations in your jurisdiction. For permanent fixed stations, once a geographic license is obtained, the next step is to license the permanent (more than a year) fixed stations, if desired. The FCC’s Universal Licensing System can be used to apply for both licenses.
  • Before applying for licensing, you will need an FCC Registration Number (FRN) via the FCC site. This is relatively simple and requires some basic identifying info.
  • Once the FRN is active, you can apply for geographic licensing, which, once issued, will typically cover your entire jurisdiction. You will need a wide variety of information for this section, including (but not limited to) location from which operations will be controlled; planned activities; geographic area (center point and radius, using longitude and latitude); and potentially an environmental assessment. If jurisdiction boundaries overlap, 4.9 GHz licensees are expected to coordinate channel use. In a few areas, 4.9 GHz spectrum use is also covered under spectrum use plans established by regional planning committees.
  • Once the FCC approves the mobile, geographic license, if you want to add a permanent, fixed station to the 4.9 GHz network, you must seek a second site-specific fixed license. This license requires some of the same information as the geographic license, in addition to greater detail about the specific location of the station and antennas.
  • It’s important to note there’s no way to predict how quickly the FCC will issue a 4.9 GHz license. However, it’s advisable to first search for and coordinate with other public safety licensees in the area, and allow at least one month for the FCC to process an application to authorize mobile and temporary fixed use. For permanent fixed use, plan for an additional one-month wait.

 

Case in Point: Morehead, KY, Police

Rajant, a provider of private wireless networks, worked with the Morehead, Kentucky Police to apply for an experimental license from the FCC to fly a tethered drone integrated into a kinetic mesh network during a large outdoor event in July 2017 in Morehead. The drone flight’s purpose was to test the viability of an aerial broadband/surveillance system attached to a tethered drone to enhance situational awareness for police and first responders during similar events.

Morehead has a free public kinetic mesh network installed in its downtown area, with a combination of wireless network nodes and networking software that give instant Internet access to anyone within the network’s parameters. In a kinetic mesh network, an infinite amount of nodes can join the network without affecting bandwidth or throughput, so the node on the drone was able to tap into existing network infrastructure for instant connectivity. Additionally, kinetic mesh networks can run on licensed, unlicensed and military bands, so the tethered drone’s on-board network connection was able to use the 4.9 GHz band.

The tethered drone flight and pop-up connectivity test was a success, allowing rapid radio coverage as well as aerial video coverage during the outdoor festival. The Morehead Police flew Rajant’s drone 30 meters over the city and live-streamed the video coverage, showing high-bandwidth throughput is possible via a drone on a mesh network. Additionally, the wireless radio on the drone created a reliable pop-up aerial broadband network for Morehead’s public safety communications, giving first responders a way to extend and scale their existing mesh to better protect citizens during events.

“We have a relatively small [police] department, and you want to make sure you have every angle covered [during these kinds of events],” said Morehead Mayor Jim Tom Trent. “If there’s an issue, we need to know where it is as quickly as possible, who’s involved, how many people need to respond, [and] who needs to respond, and that all starts with communication.”

 

Finding Innovative Solutions

Due in large part to new technologies, the ways first responders fight crime and keep citizens safe are changing at a rapid pace.

However, according to an Accenture report (pdf link here), this new technology also affords opportunities, giving us “… the potential to transform the way police and other public safety agencies meet their more traditional responsibilities,” with technologies like video analytics, drones and wearables. But to properly use these tools, we need real-time data: “These new technologies are … only as good as the data [that] powers them. That puts the onus on public safety agencies to ensure their data is of the highest quality and is as accessible as possible, without compromising public trust.” 

As with any network – wired or wireless – there are limitations to connectivity. By utilizing the instant tower technology, with wireless nodes/radios mounted to tethered drones, communications relays can be custom-deployed for whatever purpose they are required. For example, in an emergency, communications may not penetrate a building where first responders need to enter. An instant tower repeater can be put up quickly to maintain connectivity, and first responders carrying gear can still connect with the main backhaul network.

Or, by creating aerial surveillance and pop-up mobile broadband using existing technologies, a 4.9 GHz system networked with a tethered drone can greatly enhance first responders’ connectivity options and provide access to high-quality real-time data from anywhere, even rural areas or outdoor events.

Creative solutions like these can be safe and valid answers to rapid deployment of aerial communications, supporting cities’ missions regarding security and protection of life and property. While there are still current challenges to running tethered drones on the 4.9 GHz band, having a reliable mesh network and 4.9 GHz licensing in place will better position cities to reap the benefits of low interference, reliability, high availability and security.

 

Don Gilbreath is Vice President, Systems at Rajant. He can be reached at dgilbreath@rajant.com

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