Police aviation can be a powerful, highly visible hearts-and-minds tool for police departments and the local and national politicians who are ultimately responsible for them. Helicopters orbiting over an incident or providing emergency assistance at an accident scene provide visible evidence to communities that their police department is on the job. And, at least in theory, patrolling aircraft remind potential perpetrators that the eye of law enforcement is watching them.
That can backfire. When tensions between troubled communities and law enforcement tip over into outright street violence, police aircraft orbiting a disturbance may be seen not as a force for peace, but as a target for resentment or simple malice. Police aircraft are sometimes shot at or – more frequently – targeted by lasers. More than 70 such laser attacks were reported in the UK alone last year. In 2012, two men were convicted and jailed after firing handguns at a police helicopter in Birmingham during riots the previous year.
Camera images from the helicopter enabled police to identify the men, then use cameras on the ground to track them to an address and arrest them – an example of how efficient integration of airborne and ground-based systems can achieve a positive result.
There are, of course, two sides to the coin. “When police helicopter missions go wrong, they can generate a disproportionate level of embarrassingly negative publicity for the operator,” said Bryn Elliott, Editor of UK-based Police Aviation News.
In February this year, three South Yorkshire Police helicopter crewmen faced a misconduct hearing after being accused of making illicit recordings from their helicopter of naked sunbathers and of a couple having sex in the garden of their home. Media reports have given the story a comic twist – but such behaviour needs to be taken seriously as a clear invasion of privacy.
Other mission failures are tragic. In Glasgow, feeling still runs high over the November 2013 incident in which a Police Scotland helicopter crashed onto the Clutha Vaults pub, killing seven patrons and all three officers onboard. A Fatal Accident Inquiry is ongoing.
“More effective use of better mission control systems might help police services demonstrate a sense of accountability and avoid reputational damage in cases like these,” said Elliott.
Ready for anything
Being mission ready means having no maintenance that is outstanding or upcoming. Kyle Vergeer, Managing Director at WinAir, explained that by using the company’s software solutions, ‘law enforcement agencies can accurately track and manage maintenance activities and maintain inventory control to ensure that aviation assets are always ready for the next emergency’. He added: “WinAir provides the ability to determine a maximum mission profile, which means that operations can determine how long a particular aircraft can fly for a specific mission before maintenance requirements result in a compliance issue. This benefits police aviation units and other law enforcement agencies, as it assists them with ascertaining the most appropriate aircraft for each mission.”
Commonly, law enforcement agencies require the addition of components that further complicate the aircraft maintenance programme. The fact of the matter is that the more bells and whistles that you add to your aircraft (cameras, hoists, and searchlights), the more this affects the overall maintenance on your aircraft. Through the use of software such as that offered by WinAir, law enforcement agencies can manage all assets, maintenance tasks, and aircraft efficiently and effectively, concluded Vergeer.
Missions range from responding to crimes in progress or potential terror incidents, vehicle pursuit, surveillance and traffic control to monitoring large-scale public events such as political rallies, concerts, parades and sports fixtures. With paramedics on board, police helicopters may also be called upon for casualty evacuation, especially at night when mainstream medevac fixed-wing and rotorcraft air ambulances are less able to operate. The terrain in which pilots and crew must operate can range from densely populated urban areas to vast areas of sparsely populated near-wilderness, often operating at night and sometimes under challenging weather conditions.
Major players in the mission control sector continue to tweak their systems to meet the constantly evolving requirements of police helicopter clients. But clients need to be aware that there is a potential downside to investing in too many ‘bells and whistles’, suggest some suppliers.
“Operator overload is still a huge issue, especially when a small aircraft is equipped with radar, EOIR (electro-optical infra-red), ESM (electronic support measures), AIS (automatic identification system) and other sensors,” according to Katrin Gruber, spokesperson for Vienna-based Airborne Technologies, which builds the LINX mission control system. “The airborne operator has almost reached the limit of the amount of data he can see, acknowledge, process and turn into the next action. There is a need for even more automation for specific tasks that are repetitive and have known parameters.”
“We will need systems that learn from past operator actions, so they can predict events and foresee actions to be taken, or scenarios to be set up, and remove this burden from the person at the controls. LINX is working more and more as the ‘operator processing brain’ for mission control, so the real [human] operator can concentrate on what actions to take,” Gruber said.
Suppliers also agree that ongoing operator training should rank high on any airborne police department’s list of priorities. “An item of equipment may last 15 years, but the average operator’s service life may be much shorter due to promotions, retirement, burnout or family pressure,” Gruber noted. “You can buy the smartest equipment off the shelf and operate it for a long time, but you cannot ‘buy’ the smartest operator crew in the same time period and keep them for the same length of time.”
“Not only police, but also all entities that operate ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) systems will have to address the never-ending need of training and upgrading skills. The best performing equipment is slowly rendered useless when subjected to operator skill atrophy.”
Ease of use and simplicity are common requirements, but individual police operators may have differing priorities depending on their specific mission statements and the geographical areas that they cover. A police department that operates predominantly in densely populated but relatively compact urban areas – such as London or Los Angeles – may have a different array of needs and missions from an operator serving communities across an entire US state or a country the size of Scotland.
“Many law enforcement agencies have complex domain awareness, centralised command and control systems,” says Dave Blackwell, CEO of Spidertracks. Based in Auckland, New Zealand, Spidertracks is the creator of a real-time aircraft tracking solution which can be accessed from mobile devices including phones, tablets and laptops, and has recently rolled out an Android app that makes the platform even more widely accessible.
“Real-time situational awareness provides significant value across many levels of the operation,” Blackwell says. “When you can see your operation, you can manage your operation. Our Spiderwatch feature provides an active monitoring mechanism that enables robust flight following and emergency response capabilities in cross-country flight operations.”
Spidertracks’ clients include the Arizona Department of Public Safety (AZDPS) aviation bureau, which operates a fleet of five rotorcraft and nine fixed-wing aircraft from four regional locations. Missions range from law enforcement surveillance to SAR, technical rescue services and wildland firefighting.
“What was initially sought as a tracking system to hedge against the potential of missing or overdue aircraft has become an invaluable operational tool,” AZDPS Aviation Commander Terry Miyauchi told AirMed&Rescue. “Not only do we always know where our aircraft are, we strategically dispatch and reroute specific aircraft based on the live tracking.”
Spiderwatch has moved efficacy of traditional aviation emergency beacons from 25 per cent to 99.9 per cent, Blackwell claims, by removing the critical component off the aircraft and embedding it in secure cloud-based software.
In addition, Spidertracks has elected to use a dedicated Iridium channel which ensures high-fidelity data is delivered on time, every time, without exception. “This gives the customer assurance of receiving high-quality data every time without reliance on the availability of a cellular signal or an SD card,” Blackwell told AirMed&Rescue.
Avionics communication manufacturer Flightcell International has ‘covered all bases’ with an offering that provides defence-grade asset tracking hardware that switches automatically between the Iridium satellite network and commercial cellular networks, explained Marketing and Communications Manager Michael Eddy. The equipment allows one-on-one telephone conversations between air crew and ground personnel from any location, and mission data is transported to and from the aircraft with no operator intervention required.
Eddy added: “Ease of use and simplicity is at the forefront of product development with a telephone keypad that can be used with gloves, a common-sense menu structure and a night-vision display screen. Built-in WiFi and Bluetooth makes for easy integration with onboard equipment and smart devices.”
Flightcell’s solution is built to MILSPEC standards and is used by defense forces worldwide. Many law enforcement organizations are also using this technology; including the Texas Department of Public Safety, California Highway Patrol, Israel Police and the Australian Federal Police.
A global demand
For police aviation operators, fundamental requirements have changed little over the years, said Gruber. “They want to ‘see and know’ 24/7 in all kinds of weather, from safe and long ranges, with the highest definition, the lowest SWAP (size, weight and power consumption) and at a very competitive price. In reality, equipment suppliers show clients what’s possible with modern hardware and sophisticated software and guide them towards what will come closest to their requirements. It’s not always high-tech that the customer demands, it’s sometimes pure and simple common sense.”
Police operators increasingly want ‘defense-grade’ systems, but the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations(ITAR) – a US Government measure designed to prevent US military grade technology falling into the wrong hands – can create complications for buyers outside the US.
US technology in the field has few rivals, although French, Israeli and South African suppliers are contenders. But issues may arise with long-term support. Returning equipment to the US for repair or upgrading involves time-consuming paperwork, as does importing spares from US suppliers.
“The German Federal Police (Bundespolizei) prefers working with non-ITAR equipment. That is for the evident reason of simplifying and accelerating the supply chain and maintenance with the effect of an improved availability of our equipment and aircraft,” said Bundespolizei spokesperson Indra Loose-Sommer.
That has encouraged European suppliers such as Airborne Technologies to boost their systems, according to Gruber. The Bundespolizei’s decision to mandate non-ITAR equipment to meet its technical and operational requirements was ‘a very bold move’ that forced suppliers to either replace ITAR components in their systems or to ‘spec up’ non-ITAR systems with more powerful components, Gruber explained. “It was a good move and gave a shot in the arm to traditional non-ITAR ISR manufacturers who saw a level playing field developing in their favour.”
ITAR, though, is not an obstacle for US manufacturers such as CNC Technologies, a US aviation technology and wireless communications company serving law enforcement, government and military markets. It has launched CNC.LIVE, a defense-grade online aerial downlink footage portal which was deployed for the first time in January by the Atlanta Police Department, Georgia State Patrol, and other agencies of the US state’s Urban Area Security Initiative, one of several funded by the US Department of Homeland Security.
The platform is housed on secure servers used by the US Department of Defense and other government agencies and provides ‘seamless and secure access to live video intelligence on any Internet-connected device’, said Ron Magocsi, Founding Partner and Chief of Technology at CNC Technologies, which also works with agencies including the New York Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department, Texas Department of Public Safety and Michigan State Police.
The company has recently showcased airborne mission suites for Airbus H125 helicopters operated by the Broward County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office (BSO). Built from the ground up to match the BSO’s specific mission requirements, the surveillance and downlink solution was designed around Churchill Navigation’s ARS700C augmented reality moving map system and other key components including the FLIR Star SAFIRE 380-HDc imager, Spectrolab SX-16 searchlight and Troll microwave video downlink system. CNC has also signed contracts with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, also in Florida, and the Florida Highway Patrol.
Rising to the challenge
For police aviation services, mission control is an ongoing challenge. For manufacturers, providing solutions that make life easier and less complicated for airborne operators is equally challenging.