Wearables for public safety: smart watches and smart glasses

Body sensors on firefighters detecting distress, police officers receiving information on smartwatches, and paramedics seeing vital information on smart glasses are just some of the possibilities offered by wearable technology.

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The need for information on the move is increasingly being served by wearable technology. This may be to monitor the body or environmental situation of the officer, or to transmit vital information to them. With the speed of the latest wireless technologies such as 5G, LTE, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, as well as the power of miniature processing in the smallest devices such as smartwatches, the opportunities for enhancing operations and officer safety are developing quickly.

The rapid evolution of wearable technology is promising for public safety end-users, but is also raising a number of questions. Can the new devices in the commercial market be used by public safety officers? Will they be robust and secure? Devices such as smartwatches and smart glasses are powerful platforms which run applications in a similar way to smartphones, so who will develop such applications for police, fire and medical officers? A need for an application ecosystem is emerging. Finally, how will inputs from wearables be integrated in the control room? This article focuses on smartwatches and glasses, as other wearable sensors were well covered in Sam Fenwick’s article on the subject last April.

Limited only by imagination 

Ed Parkinson, acting CEO of FirstNet, shares his views on the possibilities offered by wearable technology. “When you look at the speed of innovation in the commercial markets in areas such as sensors and smartwatches, we need to be able to bring these to the public safety community and adapt and secure them for our environment and operating processes. In the past our user numbers and fragmentation meant that we did not have the market size to influence the manufacturers and applications developers. But that is changing now; with FirstNet we are rapidly expanding the user base, with 5,250 agencies and 425,000 connections as of January this year. When you factor in the global picture with similar agencies growing in the UK, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia, we now have a voice that industry needs to listen to. One example is the inclusion of Band 14 in the latest Apple iPhone, making it compatible with our network – something that was inconceivable just a few years ago.”

He adds: “I recently attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and talked to vendors showing emerging technologies that we can bring into the public safety space. Think about the possibilities offered by the latest drone technology, heads-up displays for firefighters, and smart wearables. In fact, if the driver of a fire truck had a head-up display, they could be given updated route information to the incident or changes to the situation at the fireground. If they are driving through smoke to the source of a forest fire they could be shown an enhanced visualisation using infrared or other sensors. The limitations are changing from the availability of technology to the limits of our imagination. Just a few years back we couldn’t have foreseen some of the solutions we see today, so our task is to create the environment to bring surprising innovations into the hands of our public safety users.”

I asked Parkinson about the need for an innovation environment in which developers can bring new solutions to take advantage of new technologies. “We are working to create and support the environment in which developers can adapt and certify existing applications for public safety use, and also stimulate new and smaller organisations to bring solutions to the end-users. I would like to see universities involved, and even officers themselves bringing new applications into the market. I am excited about what we will be seeing in the next few years.”

Driven in the first place by the consumer market, the smartwatch is evolving rapidly. The size of this market, together with advances in processing and communications technology, are bringing new devices to the consumer with ever greater capabilities. Big players such as Apple and Samsung are already in the field, together with established suppliers such as FitBit. Mindful of the possibilities for business or public safety, manufacturers are supporting the devices with enterprise mobility management software and software development kits to customise applications for specific enterprises and agencies.

Smartwatches are available with LTE, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, as well as versatile screens, body sensors, voice activation and accelerometers. As an example, Samsung is already proposing its Galaxy Watch as an aid for first-responders. This watch is IP68-rated, has built-in LTE and can operate as a standalone device or integrate with other communications tools such as portable or vehicle radios. With suitable battery life and defence-grade security, Samsung claims the watch is ready for public safety deployment today. Equipped with GPS and heart rate monitoring, it can keep controllers informed about the location and health of the officer, and send alerts about health risks or other dangers. The screen can display information such as a photo of a person of interest or a section of a map. Samsung is working with providers of control room solutions and offers the Samsung DeX application platform as a tool for rapidly integrating the device into control room systems and adding specific applications for end-users.

Smartwatches such as this offer voice communications, short messages and instant alerts from dispatch, and can alert the officer by using haptic feedback (vibrations). This ability to silently alert an officer improves situational awareness and safety. The Galaxy Watch can be set up to send a duress alert with a simple touch; this means an officer faced with a dangerous situation can summon assistance without drawing attention to their actions.

The Galaxy Watch supports standalone LTE connectivity, making it possible to make and receive calls using the watch’s built-in microphone and speaker, as well as wireless charging. When it comes to data security the Samsung Knox application provides protection that begins at the hardware level and continues through to the operating system. Knox also provides access to device management and customisation options for wearables.

Future vision 

Since some early pilot tests in the past few years, smart glasses are now knocking on the door of the public safety market. Far fewer consumers are using these today compared to smartwatches, but the particular needs of the mission-critical market may drive fast adoption. Taking China as an example, in 2018 the LLVision smart glasses were used by police during the busy Spring Festival at Zhengzhou station to identify a number of suspects in major crimes and passengers using other people’s identity documents.

At CES 2019, the Vuzix Blade smart glasses won a consumer technology award. These connect to a smartphone application, but can be voice controlled hands-free. They are used as standard glasses with prescription inserts if necessary. Information is displayed on the inside of the glass, and a camera also looks ahead to sense the environment. ST Engineering has taken the technology one step further with a software platform that integrates biometric and other information for first-responders and enterprise users.

The Canadian company North (formerly Thalmic Labs) is offering Focals, smart glasses which are customised for each end-user – showing how smart glasses are becoming far less obtrusive and obvious, and intended for all-day wear. They share similar features to other offerings without a forward-facing camera; however, they still display location, messaging, calendar and other info to the user with minimum interference to vision. Control is achieved with a small joystick on a finger ring.

Medical, security and police officers may be the most promising market for such devices, enabling them to freely move and use their hands while receiving data and possibly sending video to controllers or medical centres. Firefighters wearing helmets may soon use advances in display technology integrated into their headgear, as may motorcycle policemen or paramedics. Augmented reality is also a potential application on such devices – the possibilities for officer training, enhanced navigation and medical assistance are intriguing.

The key to the back office 

Tyler Technologies supplies CAD systems for public safety agencies, and it is working with Samsung to integrate the latter’s smartwatch into its systems. Duane Kietzman, product owner, talks me through the project.

He says: “We looked at the workflow of police officers in particular. These people have data solutions on tablets or PCs in the car but will frequently need to quickly get out and interact with a situation on foot, perhaps chasing a suspect who is fleeing a crime scene. In this case the paramount concern is officer safety, and so the smartwatch can alert the dispatcher to sudden movement and track location, based on agency needs and preferences.”

With LTE built in there is no need to relay this information through another device, which is a big step forward for smartwatches, according to Kietzman. Tyler Technologies is also working to bring biometric information such as heart rate into the control system, which monitors first-responders. With this technology, if critical body levels are reached, the dispatcher can take rapid action. The company is trying to port the solutions onto Apple- or Google Wear OS-based smartwatches.

Kietzman says: “In the future we are also looking at how IoT sensor information can be included in the command picture, and considering how smart glasses can be used. Underlying all of this is the principle that information should be making the job of the officer safer, and that of the dispatcher easier. We offer a multiple device control system, noting that we need to capture information from and interact with several devices carried by officers and located in their vehicle. In all of this we are very aware of the danger of overwhelming dispatchers with too much information.”

Airbus is also working to integrate more information from sensors and wearables into its Tactilon Suite of solutions for public safety. Bruno Milard, product management director, explains: “Airbus continues to develop the Tactilon Suite to combine all types of secure radio bearers, with applications and control room solutions to continuously improve public safety operations. New sensors and devices will be evaluated and combined into the total solution as they mature to the point that they meet the needs of these users. Airbus has its SmarTWISP development environment and invites developers to work on applications which will make the best use of new sensor technology to improve decisions and enhance officer safety.” Milard adds: “Task management is the next step in smart control of operations, rather than just assigning a group of officers simply on location. By knowing the battery levels of the radios or the coverage, a more effective or safer allocation of officers can be made. Cameras, body and environment sensors can also add to the decision-making algorithm. Introducing artificial intelligence will then reduce the load on the controller and offer the optimum alternatives for action. But the human controller must still make the final decisions.”

Smartwatches are being closely looked at with extensions of the Tactilon Agnet application being ported across. Flexible displays are also offering possibilities for wearable solutions – Airbus is looking at displays integrated into an officer’s clothing, including on the sleeve. Innovations such as these have already been shown at CCW, and we expect to see more developments at CCE and CCW this year.

Hexagon is a global supplier of control room solutions and is familiar with the integration of large numbers of IoT sensors into its solutions. Steve Marz, VP, global product management, and other members of its team tell me that integration of information from cameras in airport and border locations has been happening since 2005, and they are now integrating mobile video inputs from drones and body-worn cameras into dispatch and workflows.

Smartwatches can add to the picture by detecting heart distress and also officer fall-over, combined with location to help when sending assistance. Sensors can even be carried by police dogs for their safety or to get information in difficult areas.

There is, however, some concern about smartwatches if used for location monitoring over a long period – due to the amount of power consumed by GPS receivers, other devices may be better for long-term location monitoring. Hexagon is looking at how data overload from wearables and the IoT might be addressed by AI.

Worries about security 

In the USA, NIST has identified a number of threat situations specific to wearable devices that must be addressed if they are to meet public safety security and availability thresholds. Sensitive information could be intercepted from a wearable device as these have less secure operating systems than dedicated public safety units – Bluetooth or other wireless connections need to be hardened against attack.

A malicious person could spoof the wearable device to send false information, and cause battery drain, overheating or even explosion; integrity protection and/or digital signatures may be needed to prevent such attacks. Meanwhile, malware in the back-office infrastructure could prevent the device from operating correctly. Such attacks have been documented – the manufacturers and operators need to eliminate such weaknesses with malware detection systems before units are deployed in the field.

Denial of service or jamming could include attacks on short-range communications such as Bluetooth or the connection of the officer back to control or colleagues, so selection of jamming-resistant protocols needs to be considered.

Potential users of wearables need to be mindful of such threats, especially if buying from the commercial and public markets.

Taking these security concerns into account as well as commercial factors, there needs to be a drive towards open platforms when it comes to the integration of information from wearables into public safety command and control systems. There is a real danger of proprietary solutions locking users into one manufacturer. This is the case with smartwatches, and potentially with smart glasses – where a number of operating platforms exist.

Processors will get smaller and more powerful, LTE and 5G receivers will fit into even smaller packages, and the application community will continue to grow. We can expect smartwatches to get smarter still and open platforms to attract suitable public safety applications. Smart glasses could be of significant benefit to selected public safety officers and the partnerships between the manufacturers and software platform developers is noted. CCE and CCW this year may be the venues to see the latest innovations in this fast-moving situation[ – imagination is becoming the most valuable commodity.

Critical Communications Today

Critical Communications Today is dedicated to the global critical communications market. It aims to inspire and inform the critical communications community and is published with the support of TCCA. Initially launched in 2010 as TETRA Today, this publication provides technical advice, authoritative editorial and commentary spanning all areas of mission-critical comms.
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