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By Ron Magocsi - In the world of public safety, there are few resources in the government and law enforcement toolkit that serve a more varied, impactful and “game-changing” role than the aviation division.  Whether providing security for high profile events, performing search and rescue after natural disasters, covertly tracking the movements of suspects or protecting borders and coastlines, aircrews play an increasingly critical function in maintaining the public’s security.

 

At the heart of this growth is the ongoing development of new and more sophisticated aerial surveillance technologies that continually raise the bar for what air crews are able to accomplish.  Yet even as capabilities that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago become more commonplace, police departments and government agencies find themselves facing a new challenge.  Namely, how to successfullyhelinet collage navigate the marketplace blizzard of complex options, technologies and device makers as they work to develop and/or maintain a robust solution.

 

Compounding the issue is the product-centric approach that can dominate the decision making ranks when it comes to launching an aerial surveillance capability.  As with most technically advanced systems, having the right product mix is key, but represents only a singular piece of the overall puzzle.  Equally, if not more important is having the infrastructure in place to keep the system up and running.  At the level of complexity at which today’s aerial surveillance technologies operate, simply having the physical components in place without a comprehensive support structure is not enough.  In order to field a credible solution, agencies must have a responsive “backend” as well that keeps the system operating at its highest potential.

 

While these challenges are not insignificant, there are several steps that agencies can take to improve their outcomes when tasked with implementing or upgrading their aerial surveillance system.

 

Of utmost importance is simply learning what tools are out there.  While this sounds extremely basic, even surveillance industry veterans can have difficulty elaborating the full range of technologies and solutions currently available to the aerial surveillance operator.  Further complicating the matter is the absence of readily available, third-party buying resources – for instance, the kind of impartial guides most consumers rely on for car purchases – that offer benchmarked evaluations of the various existing solutions.BCSO2 

 

In this information vacuum, solid marketplace knowledge about current solutions and upcoming innovations becomes even more important.  As a starting point, organizations can audit, as much as possible, how top air units like those of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, New York Police Department, DEA, FBI and Los Angeles Police Department run their operations.  Other options include engaging with aviation consultancies that specialize in building and operating aerial surveillance assets, meeting with vendors and reviewing available case studies and media coverage related to aerial surveillance operations.

 

Similarly crucial to developing a robust capability lies in clearly identifying the missions the air unit is tasked with fulfilling.  With budget an ever-present factor, having a checklist of must-haves, should-haves and would-be-nice-to-haves can help agencies ensure they don’t overbuy in non-critical areas while skimping on core functionality.  For instance, a big city police department that regularly faces fluid tactical scenarios will generally have a greater need for robust, live microwave-downlink capabilities than a narcotics taskforce dedicated to finding large-scale marijuana grows hidden in national parks and forests. 

 

Simultaneous to implementing a new aerial surveillance system or upgrading an existing capability, comes the task of creating a comprehensive management plan and support infrastructure to operate and maintain it.  This is the aforementioned “backend” of the operation, responsible for keeping the entire system running, minimizing downtime and ensuring operational continuity.  Shortchange this part of the equation only at extreme risk – even the most advanced system becomes worthless if it’s grounded during a time of need.  For this reason, it is vital to have a dedicated expert or team who understands the system in its entirety and can respond 24/7 to any technological problems that arise.

 

In addition to technical expertise, a comprehensive and ongoing training program is essential to maintaining operational fitness.  Whether administered in-house or by outside experts, a training program prevents air crews’ proficiencies from slipping, especially when it comes to system capabilities that are used only infrequently, but can be vitally important at a moment’s notice during a crisis situation.  Similarly, ongoing training prevents normal staff attrition from taking a toll, as new crew members are quickly brought up to speed.

 

In fact, as technologies have advanced, the role of operating and maintaining a comprehensive aerial surveillance capability is becoming a managed service offering in its own right, with many major air units relying on outside partners to fulfill a variety of technical, training and management duties.  In practice, this can take many forms, from a quarterly training regimen to a fully outsourced solution including pilots, helicopters and staff.

 

BCSO1Last year, for example, the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT) tapped our firm, Helinet Technologies, for assistance in implementing a comprehensive aerial surveillance capability in preparation for hosting the 34-nation Summit of the Americas and the 53-nation Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.  Beginning with the design of a nationwide network of broadcast receive sites, Helinet worked with SAUTT on all aspects of its system from staffing and managing air crews to delivering continuous live aerial feeds via microwave downlink to commanders on the ground.

 

More recently, the Aero Bureau of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department selected Helinet to design and support a microwave downlink system for its fleet that will enable live, uninterrupted ship-to-ground broadcast of aerial images over short and long distances to both portable and fixed receive sites.

 

“There are very few organizations in either the private sector or government that have the technical ability and know-how to implement the type of robust aerial surveillance solution we were looking for,” said Sergeant John Haughey of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.  “With Helinet we get a partner with deep experience managing aerial operations for law enforcement and a proven track record in keeping complex aerial surveillance solutions running smoothly.”

 

Regardless of the path an organization ultimately chooses to take, a smart and measured approach that takes the ongoing work of operating and maintaining the aerial surveillance capability into consideration is essential.  The tools and expertise are out there.  The key for law enforcement and public safety agencies is making the right choices.

Ron Magocsi is Vice President and Chief Technical Officer for Helinet Technologies

 

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