Mobile Data On A Budget

Tom Rataj
December 19, 2011
By Tom Rataj
The introduction of mobile data terminals in police vehicles back in the mid-1980s, was a huge step forward in access to information for police officers in the field. Suddenly, officers no longer needed to rely solely on the dispatcher to run checks on persons or vehicles. They could now access large amounts of information at any time without having to interrupt an already busy dispatcher with “just” a plate check. This new electronic data-access also greatly increased the number of checks done by officers because of its self-serve nature. It facilitated trolling for stolen autos, suspended drivers and ne’er-do-wells regardless of how busy the voice-radio system was or how strongly the officers’ intuitive senses tingled.

The introduction of mobile data terminals in police vehicles back in the mid-1980s, was a huge step forward in access to information for police officers in the field.

Suddenly, officers no longer needed to rely solely on the dispatcher to run checks on persons or vehicles. They could now access large amounts of information at any time without having to interrupt an already busy dispatcher with “just” a plate check.

This new electronic data-access also greatly increased the number of checks done by officers because of its self-serve nature. It facilitated trolling for stolen autos, suspended drivers and ne’er-do-wells regardless of how busy the voice-radio system was or how strongly the officers’ intuitive senses tingled.

Car-to-car messaging also now allowed officers to communicate privately amongst themselves without being overheard by the dispatcher, the road-sergeant, or citizens (and criminals) that were eavesdropping on voice radio transmissions. This offered a number of tactical and operational advantages, but also got a few officers in hot-water when inappropriate messages were sent.

It must be remembered that this all came in the days before cellular phones were affordable or readily available to everyone.

Thankfully the dumb mobile data terminals soon gave way to real computers such as the Panasonic Toughbook laptop computers which arrived in the early 1990s. These real computers introduced actual processing power in the field, and added the ability to access in-house records management systems (RMS) and to prepare and submit reports from the field electronically.

Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping and automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology add-ons followed in the 2000s further leveraging the mobile data equipment and the increasing operational efficiencies that it offered.

Expenses

Supporting mobile data and related technologies unfortunately brought with it complex and expensive infrastructure both in the car and back at HQ.

Prior to the arrival of higher-speed cellular data technology and almost ubiquitous access to it, the implementation of mobile data also required the construction of expensive private wireless data networks that often suffered coverage issues that caused dead-spots.

Implementing and operating mobile data services and equipment in police vehicles typically involves substantial capital and operating costs. Expensive rugged computers that can survive 3 or more years in the rough and tumble environment of a police vehicle, particularly in the typical four-season Canadian climate, are the norm.

Protecting all the expensive hardware against theft or damage, while still keeping it ergonomically placed and out of air-bag deployment zones also add to the costs.

Despite the numerous advantages of mobile data for front-line policing, the costs associated with the acquisition and operation of the systems often takes it out of the budgetary reach of many smaller police agencies. Many of these smaller agencies also do not have the in-house experts required to implement and operate it.

Mobile Innovations

Fortunately, a substantially cheaper solution will soon be offered by Niagara Falls, Ontario based Mobile Innovations (www.mobinnoco.com). Their existing Blackberry smartphone based policing products has been in use for several years in Canada, the UK and Australia, and with 17,000 users they certainly have extensive experience in this field. In the Canadian implementation officers have access to CPIC and the Niche RMS products.

Their “Mobile Police Assist” product line is being enhanced with the addition of the Blackberry Playbook tablet as the in-vehicle display for data from the Blackberry smartphone. Custom applications also allow it to operate the vehicle’s emergency lighting and other police systems. The Chatham-Kent Police Service (www.ckpolice.com) in south-western Ontario currently has two field-test version of the prototype deployed.

The affordable off-the-shelf components that make-up this system is what really makes it affordable. While none of the components are rugged to military specifications such as many of the regular police mobile-data systems, the Playbook tablet and Blackberry phone are both relatively cheap and can be readily replaced at a local retail cellular phone or computer vendor.

The entire upfront hardware costs for the system (including mounting hardware and connecting components) is under $2,000, well within the budgetary reach of even a small agency with only a few cars. Compare this to the upfront costs of a rugged laptop or mobile computer system at upwards of $10,000 and it’s a real bargain.

Two Dodge Charger prototype demo-vehicles were demonstrated at last year’s OACP and CACP annual conferences and trade shows and on-tour elsewhere across Canada where they were well received.

The prototype systems consist of a 16GB Blackberry Playbook tablet, a pre-production Blackberry Bluetooth keyboard for Playbook, a Blackberry smartphone for the cellular data connection, an E-Seek M250 2D card reader for reading driver’s licences, a Brother PocketJet printer for e-ticket printing, and a smart-hub mini-server to connect all the components together and make it all work.

D&R Electronics (www.dandrelectronics.com), of Bolton, Ontario worked with Mobile Innovations to design and build a customised mounting system designed specifically for the prototype units. D&R Electronics also has many years of experience in designing and building custom in-vehicle mounting systems.

The mount for the Playbook is designed so that the Playbook can be removed from the vehicle and taken into scenes to facilitate investigations and report writing. The mounting bracket holds the Playbook securely to the dashboard but still allows adjustments of up to 35 degrees horizontally and 40 degrees vertically, allowing officers to easily orient the unit in a comfortable position towards themselves (and away from the guy in bracelets in the back seat).

The keyboard mount has two articulation points which allow the keyboard to be positioned more conveniently for either driver or passenger and includes a LED light to illuminate the non-backlit keyboard.

The Parts

The Blackberry Playbook is a 178mm (7”) tablet computer that was launched by Research in Motion in April 2011. With a crisp and bright HD 1024x600 LCD display in 16:9 aspect ratio (think big-screen TV proportions) the Playbook makes a great little in-car display that doesn’t block vehicle heating/cooling controls or stereos as larger displays do.

The Playbook operates on RIM’s exclusive secure QNX operating system and is powered by a 1GHz dual-core (two processors on one chip) processer, with 1GB of system memory and 16, 32 or 64GB of user memory depending on model. Even at the regular retail list price of $499 for the entry-level 16GB version, the Playbook is substantially cheaper than replacing only the screen portion on a rugged laptop or mobile computer.

Although the Playbook is capable of operating for 6 or more hours on battery alone, this setup has it connected to a charger while in the dashboard mount so the battery is always topped up. To protect the Playbook from bumps and bruises it is enclosed in an Otterbox (www.otterbox.com) brand case.

In the prototype version the system is connected through a USB smart-hub which is essentially a mini computer server that hosts all the connected equipment. The smart-hub runs Angstrom, a version of Linux designed for embedded systems, and the custom programs that make everything work together are written in the open-source Python programming language. In place of a hard drive the system works off a MicroSD card.

The prototype system is pre-configured with 3 screen brightness settings: dim, office and sunlight, allowing the user to customise the brightness level for the ambient lighting conditions. An optional negative image night-mode setting is being investigated to further improve night-time usability.

Since tablet computers are really not very effective at large amounts of text entry, this system includes a pre-production RIM designed Playbook keyboard that uses Bluetooth wireless to connect to the system. The final production version of this keyboard was expected to be released during January 2012.

One of the major advantages of using mobile data systems is the ability to electronically capture driver’s licence data to conduct checks and prepare tickets. With this system, an E-Seek (www.e-seek.com) brand M250 2D card reader is used. It can read the data on both the magnetic stripe and linear 2D bar codes found on most drivers’ licences, health cards and other government issued ID cards.

Electronic tickets are prepared from the data captured from the driver’s licence (eliminating transposition errors), and printed using an optional Brother (www.brother.ca) PocketJet thermal mobile printer. The PocketJet prints tickets on a roll of paper that has a 500 - 8½ X 11” sheet equivalent page capacity.

While the Playbook is the core of the system, all the data transmission is accomplished through a Blackberry smartphone and over public cellular data networks. The two devices are wirelessly connected over a Bluetooth connection which is secured against eavesdropping by Blackberry’s state-of-the-art security protocols and encryption. Again, because of this connection between the Playbook and Blackberry smartphone, the two pieces can be removed from the car and used at a scene to facilitate investigations and report writing.

All data transmitted using the smartphone or smartphone/tablet combination system relies entirely on the mobile data services of the locally available cellular telephone service providers such as Rogers, Bell, Telus or others. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage.

With public mobile cellular data, agencies simply need to purchase data blocks and negotiate priority access agreements so that police systems always have a reserved portion of bandwidth, regardless of how busy the wireless data networks are. Also, with public mobile cellular data services, the provider is entirely responsible for the system, relieving the police service from this burden.

Some police agencies might be uncomfortable with this arrangement because they are not entirely in control of a critical part of their infrastructure.

Generally, users of this product have unlimited bulk voice and data plans for their Blackberry smartphone, so voice data costs are not prohibitively expensive. An added advantage is that users also automatically have cellular voice communications.

Think of the cellular data side in terms of car-leasing; the costs are fixed and every few years you get a new car (or in this case a cellular data system) without the worries of replacing it outright once it gets old.

Since GPS is a native feature on Blackberry smartphones it can also be used with this product to assist officers in finding their way about town and out of town. Because the Playbook is much larger than even the largest standalone GPS or built-in vehicle navigation units it provides much better mapping functionality.

Future additions to this system include in-car camera hardware and software and voice dictation software.

Further Information

Gary Bauer may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or visit mobinnoco.com. D&R Elctronics may be reached at DandRelectronics.com. You may also make enquiries about this project through RIM at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Tom Rataj is Blue Line’s Technology Editor and he may be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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