Datalink – a communication system that enables the exchange of digital information between aircraft and ground stations or other aircraft – allows for the transfer of various types of data, such as text messages, weather updates, flight plans, surveillance information, and operational data.
Datalink technology has been in routine use by police aviation pilots and controllers since at least the 1990s, but in today’s busy and complex police aviation environment it has become a tool that police aviators can’t do without.
“Anything and everything transmitted is a datalink, even public TV. It’s just a question of who can access it,” said Bryn Elliott, editor of UK-based Police Aviation News.
“Obviously it has grown to be better quality and has now gone from ‘downlink’ to ‘uplink’ and even ‘broadcast’ but it is not new.
“The trick is how to squeeze high-definition (HD) information up and down. This is where drones lose out. You cannot take an HD image from, say, a WESCAM MX15 viewed in an aircraft and send it to the ground. There is way too much information. So, unless it is hard wired and, therefore, not a datalink, the drone image or that viewed on the ground is not as high quality as the one viewed in the crewed aircraft,” Elliott said.
Datalinks becoming vital
Datalink has been used in military and civil aviation and in more specialized sectors such as police aviation for more than 30 years. In a sense, then, it’s nothing new.
“Datalinks are essential for modern aviation operations as they provide efficient and secure means of communication, improving situational awareness, operational efficiency and safety. They reduce reliance on voice communication and facilitate the exchange of real-time information, which is crucial for flight planning, coordination and decision-making,” said Reuben Mann, Head of Marketing at Skytrac Systems, a leading global provider of satellite communications and intelligent connectivity solutions.
Datalink technology has also become a vital means of rapid, real-time communication between police aviators and their colleagues in other public safety agencies, such as fire and ambulance services. The UK’s National Police Air Service (NPAS), for example, can broadcast live, encrypted images throughout England and Wales, and last year joined the West Midlands Fire Service and West Midlands Ambulance Service in a partnership that uses airborne datalink technology from Enterprise Control Systems (ECS) that lets them access live footage from NPAS aircraft.
Datalinks are essential for modern aviation operations as they provide efficient and secure means of communication
“The ability to receive live high-quality video and data has always been key for the emergency organizations we work with,” according to Colin Waite, UK Police Business Development Manager at ECS.
“With more collaborative and joint operations, not only is it essential to have interoperable voice communications, but the ability to share situational awareness information, which will be key in being able to resolve incidents efficiently and safely.”
Quick effective communication
“Datalinks can receive live weather updates, NOTAMs (Notices to Air Missions), or other safety-critical information, allowing operators to make well-informed decisions regarding flight routes, emergency landings, or avoiding hazardous areas,” said Mann.
“Additionally, datalink systems can support collision avoidance by providing real-time position updates of nearby aircraft or obstacles,” added Mann.
The technology has become all but indispensable for police aviation operators, manufacturers claim.
Mann explained: “Datalinks enable secure and real-time communication between aircraft and ground-based command centres or other participating aircraft. This allows for efficient coordination and exchange of critical information during operations. Messages, updates, and status reports can be quickly shared, ensuring effective communication between all involved parties.”
Datalinks, he pointed out, also increase situational awareness by providing access to real-time data – such as weather information, radar data, and operational updates. They can receive updated maps, send and receive live video feeds, or other sensor data from aircraft helping them to assess the situational accurately and make informed decisions.
“Datalink International, a global software-as-a-solutions provider, based in Las Vegas, Nevada, allows a police dispatcher to see all of their vehicles and officers on one web screen, which provides the ability to make decisions quickly and efficiently,” said Chad Sallman, International Sales Director for Datalink International.
Sallman continued: “With the ability to effectively know where all of their officers are located in real time, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a solution, such as Datalink International’s DataGate platform, is a must have.”
The ability to receive live high-quality video and data has always been key for emergency organizations
Datalinks have become essential for modern aviation operations, providing efficient and secure communication and improving situational awareness, operational efficiency and safety, agreed Mann, who said: “They can be highly beneficial for public safety agencies such as police, helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS), and search and rescue (SAR) operators. They enable improved communication, situational awareness, coordination and safety. By leveraging these capabilities, operators can enhance operational efficiency and effectiveness.”
“The ability to see helicopters, vehicles, and officers via their radios is instrumental for dispatch to effectively coordinate and respond to incidents in real time,” Sallmann concurred.
“Datalink International continues to create niche solutions for law enforcement including the ability to track and communicate with their ground personnel, and coordinate with officers in the air who are patrolling via helicopter.”
Police aviation pilots, perhaps even more than their colleagues in HEMS and SAR, operate in an intense, multi-tasking environment. They may be tasked to pursue vehicles or search for suspects fleeing on foot, more mundanely to monitor traffic incidents and mass events – such as sports fixtures, rock converts, parades and political rallies – all the while liaising with and directing colleagues on the ground, while being aware that their communications may be followed and their aircraft pursued by news-hungry, airborne TV crews.
Datalinks can receive live weather updates, NOTAMs, or other safety critical information, allowing operators to make well-informed decisions
Older readers may remember Airwolf, the fictional, borderline AI helicopter that starred in the eponymous 1980s US television series. Its onboard computer could identify and track aircraft and vehicles, intercept voice communications and hack other computers. By the 1990s, Airwolf’s then-futuristic, fictional capabilities had already morphed into real technology that was in use to provide voice and visual information to all emergency services.
As with every other aspect of information technology, the snowball is rolling. It has been doing so – albeit at glacial speed – for some time. In 2010, the European Helicopter Safety Team (EHEST), now known as the technology specialist team of the European Safety Promotion Network (ESPN-R), carried out research that assessed key factors in helicopter accidents in Europe and identified a range of ‘highly promising’ technologies to mitigate them. Last November –12 years later – the ESPN-R parent organization, the European Union Safety Agency (EASA), and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with private sector aviation stakeholders Boeing and Airbus, launched a joint initiative to ‘rethink aviation connectivity’, publishing a proposal for ‘the modernization and harmonization of the aviation data communication landscape by 2035’.
Issues affecting policing
To be fair, organizations such as EASA and the FAA have a lot to think about, and police aviation, HEMS and SAR are just a tiny part of the global ‘aviation data communication landscape’. But their White Paper does identify issues that may be as applicable to police aviation operators as they are to the broader civil aviation world.
“For the first time, we have a common vision from all four organizations in the task force, to establish modern air-ground communications that will meet tomorrow’s requirements. This is the first step toward achieving this, and a major one,” stated Patrick Ky, EASA’s Executive Director.
The White Paper notes that very-high frequency (VHF) datalink and first-generation aviation satellite communications are currently supported by technologies that rely to a large extent on limited-bandwidth links that have served the aviation community well for decades, but as deployed currently, they are ‘fragmented and not always interoperable’.
“There is a need to look to the future and bring the system up to modern-day standards making use of technologies such as broadband. In addition to the desire to modernize, there is a pressing need for the aviation community to converge on what should be the common solutions of tomorrow due to increasing demand on these systems,” the White Paper concluded.
There is a need to look to the future and bring the system up to modern-day standards making use of technologies such as broadband
EASA’s Rotorcraft Safety Roadmap, established in 2018 to evaluate a range of technologies with ‘key driver safety enhancers’ – such as high-speed data via satellite communication – identified by EASA as one of the technologies to enhance helicopter flight safety that have been put in place in recent years and enhanced availability of autopilot solutions for small rotorcraft, which is seen as important and as being a key contribution for better in-flight stability and pilot workload reduction.
“Datalink systems are available at different bandwidths to support specific requirements,” noted Mann.
“With Iridium Certus, the world’s only truly global satellite network, operators can select from narrowband (2.4kbps), midband (up to 88kbps), and broadband (up to 704kbps) bandwidth to enable a variety of mission capabilities from light messaging and aircraft tracking through to real-time video downlinking.”
Recently announced at the 66th annual Aircraft Electronics Association International Tradeshow and Convention, Skytrac’s 7100 is the latest datalink product that offers operators a sweet spot with 4G/LTE cellular connectivity as well as midband datalink through satellite communications. The device offers public safety agencies all of the usual capabilities, which include electronic flight bag (EFB) connectivity, flight data monitoring alerting, real-time health and usage monitoring system alerting, aircraft tracking, two voice channels and more. “The product was and is an ideal solution for all airframes,” Mann said.
“In today’s world, connectivity is critical. High value aircraft require connectivity for real-time alerts, weather to the cockpit, EFB applications, and much more. As operators seek to drive efficiencies, real-time connectivity is crucial in enabling these services,” Mann concluded.
As for Airwolf? The real helicopter used in the TV series was a gussied-up Bell 222. When the show was axed, it was sold to German air ambulance company HSD Luftrettung and ultimately crashed in poor visibility conditions in 1992, with the death of all three of its crew. There’s a moral there somewhere.