07/05/19 – Kevin Golding, applications manager at South Midlands Communications Recently Featured in Land Mobile Magazine
Two-way radio’s data bandwidth may be small, necessitating a precise and lean approach, but there is a huge amount that can be done with it, as Sam Fenwick discovers
In some respects, two-way radio is its own worst enemy. I say this as it’s all too easy to be seduced by the intuitive, instant and gratifying magic that is one-to-many push-to-talk, to the point where you look no further. As Richard Iveson, business development manager at GlobalView Systems (GVS), says, many users see two-way radio as essentially the same as the walkie-talkies “they used to have when they were kids”, without realising all the other things that modern radios can do.
Kevin Golding, applications manager at South Midlands Communications (SMC), shares this view. “Most people have preconceived ideas about what their radio is used for. We need to break those down because there’s a lot we can do nowadays and there’s very few things we can’t integrate [two-way radios with]; we’ve done everything from super-yachts to fire alarms in hotels to airports… all of those things are possible”.
He adds that the use of data applications over two-way radio benefits from its very high reliability and availability [if implemented correctly] and that users should use broadband networks when available and appropriate – but “if you’ve got mission-critical or commercially critical data that needs to be moved, don’t rely on any [single network].
“A [message sent over a two-way radio system] will [travel] much faster than a [cellular] text message and you can time the delivery so you can know how quickly it got there and you get an acknowledgement back. [With] cellular devices, network providers typically state that it can take up to 24 hours for a text message to arrive, so if you want quick messaging then nothing beats radio.”
Golding also notes when it comes to data collection, there is some wisdom in a ‘the more data the better’ attitude as sometimes “you don’t know what data you want prior to you needing it”, and while it’s easy to filter data, “you can’t generate data after an incident”.
That’s the ticket
One of the more common data applications for two-way radio are job-ticketing systems.
Iveson says the ability to provide operational reports and data “is becoming [really] important to the industries and customers that we deal with, to show that you’re protecting your people and to prove your accountability – to show that you’re meeting your KPIs [key performance indicators]”. He adds that where GVS tends to get involved is when two-way radios are integral to the way that the people who are looking to use job-ticketing applications work. A good example is in the NHS where porters use two-way radios and want the ability to accept tasks, then report when they have started and finished them, “and at the end of it there will be a report [and] the evidence trail”.
Golding adds that “originally, job ticketing used to be relatively simple and radios could handle it with their limited displays and keyboards”, but as smartphones and other devices with large screens became widely available, two-way radios became somewhat sidelined and comparatively difficult to use, and when it comes to feature-rich job-ticketing systems with form-based applications, and images may be involved, people tend to opt for mobile devices.
However, where two-way radio comes into its own from a job-ticketing perspective is when the requirements are simple, “if it’s a case of just sending a simple one- to three-line description of a job and getting pre-described simple responses”, and when cellular or Wi-Fi coverage is not available.
Golding says the problem with using mobile devices for job ticketing is that “while you may pick up your job ticket [when] you’re in a good coverage area for cellular, the job ticket might send you to a location where there is no cellular coverage and, of course, once you’ve finished the job and you need to post that update, which quite likely could trigger other events, things like turning the power grid back on or supply back on to a whole town, that’s not going to happen until they get the response to your ticket – [so] having the facility to update that ticket over the radio when you haven’t got the internet available could massively improve the response time that the customer sees”.
He adds that SMC did a proof of concept for a client who needed to use an internet-based job-ticketing app running on an iPhone, “but they had no internet connection because of the area that they were in. [DMR] Tier III radio was working fine in the area, so we [created] an application that pretended to be a web server locally so their application could talk to what it thought was the web server, but it was actually our application that was then sending those requests over the Tier III radio out onto the real internet, getting the reply and sending it back. [The user] didn’t even know there was a radio involved, he just had a Wi-Fi connection and he went into his application and made a change.”
“We don’t need to decide whether we use a radio for job ticketing or a mobile phone or mobile app, you should be able to use both,” he concludes.
Location, location, location
Another application for two-way radio’s data capabilities is tracking the location of mobile and portable users. In addition to simple use-cases like being able to better determine who is in the best position to handle a new task, Iveson says GVS has “seen a lot of need for geofencing” – the ability to trigger alerts when a device either moves out of a pre-defined area or into one. He gives the recent example of a secure mental health hospital where “they have one-to-one sessions with patients out in the grounds” and the client noted that in the event of a member of staff pushing an emergency button, there is a need to know their location. GVS divided up the ground into a number of areas and applied names to each of them, “so rather than running around like keystone cops, they could go to the point where the incident occurred”.
He adds that geofencing is also useful when it comes to making sure radios are not accidentally taken off-site and can also be used to create danger zones, “so if somebody goes into an area they’re not supposed to be in, it will tell them they need to have a certain level of safety equipment or to be past a certain level of training. Another use for geofencing is the creation of patrol zones to allow the radio system to make a note that a user has entered a given zone – especially useful for those in the security sector who need to prove that guards are making their patrols correctly.
However, due to the way GPS often works poorly in indoor locations, infrastructure such as Bluetooth beacons may be needed to allow in-building positioning, and Iveson says this is typically requested by facilities management companies so they can easily track their employees.
While we have covered two broad types of data applications, many are industry-specific. With this in mind, let’s look at the use of two-way radio data services in three areas: manufacturing, airports and shopping centres, starting with the former.
Iveson says manufacturing companies’ focus is typically around using notifications and alerts over two-way radio to reduce the expensive downtime that can arise from unexpected equipment failures and other incidents. He adds that while many companies are focused on big data and receive notifications from all parts of their plant, for this to be of use to those tasked with keeping the plant running rather than those focused on optimising its performance over the long term, it has to be filtered down and sent to the right person, “which is where we tend to come in”. He adds that the success of such alerting systems hinges on the customer’s willingness to sit down with the integrator to work out which messages are essential and to whom they should be sent.
“If there is an event in which the machinery or the plant is sending out lots and lots of error [and alarm messages] because there is something pretty significant happening,” he adds, “we have an ability to say if you get so many messages within a certain amount of time, [we] put a stop to [that and ensure the system] just sends out one blanket message which says ‘something bad is happening’, leaving [the two-way radio systems] channels free for voice.”
Iveson also notes that as manufacturing plants are becoming increasingly automated, “there are less people covering wider areas. There are lots of unseen areas, so being able to get data from those areas means we can make better use of the resource that the manufacturer has and avoid costly disruptions in production.”
Golding says SMC has some installations in car manufacturing plants and other factories, for example to monitor paint levels – ensuring that “engineers know there is an issue before it [becomes] a problem”. He adds that this is very similar to integrating two-way radio systems via a gateway to a building management system (BMS), and that as some of these systems can be very complicated to integrate into, SMC uses a virtual printer approach to “connect a radio system into pretty much any BMS system; using our product you can bring up a virtual printer and you just set the BMS software to print alarms to that printer, [which then go] over the network to our product and then we push that out over the radio system”.
He adds that while without integration with two-way radio, a BMS can “send an email out to someone, it’s not as urgent as a radio calling and bleeping at you. It doesn’t get to the engineer as quickly as their radio suddenly making a loud bleeping sound at them as they will have their radio with them and it will have the volume to get over the local noise in a manufacturing [plant].”
Turning to aviation, Golding says SMC has worked with an international airport to integrate an air traffic database with its coach dispatch system, allowing drivers to receive messages over radio telling them when to go and pick up the passengers coming off flights and automatically working out how many coaches need to be dispatched based on the number of passengers on each plane.
He adds that the same airport uses SMC’s set-up to transmit the data over two-way radios that it needs to gather for KPI metrics and reporting. Each time “a coach driver had to go and pick someone up, we would push that marker into their database to say the coach driver has been informed that he needs to go somewhere”.
Similarly the coach driver in this scenario would push a button on their radio to notify that they were on their way, arrived at their destination, or had started picking up passengers. Each button press is recorded as a data point in the airport’s database, “and they’d be able to use that to generate extensive reports on performance”, says Golding.
Our third and final use-case is the use of data applications within shopping centres. Simon Bingham, senior account manager at Radiocoms, tells me that his company is looking to serve this market with a combination of DMR Tier III systems, cloud-based applications and software from GVS to provide them with a solution that can reduce the need to have dedicated two-way radio systems for each of their sites, thus lowering costs, while providing a number of useful features over DMR’s narrowband data throughput – such as the ability to provide real-time information to radio users, including fire alarm activation alerts, lockdown instructions and data from BMS systems – as well as enabling operational readiness checks for a range of functions such as first-aid and lift rescue, and provide reminders “that the store might be open late tonight or [something] needs to be checked every hour or so”.
Other features include a link to the centre’s disabled refuge alarm and the ability to lock down areas in the centre over radio using integration with door access control systems. The system can also deliver both indoor and outdoor location information and can be used to monitor access control requests.
Bingham adds: “With the combination of the two-way radios, the cameras and the GVS software we can speed the [response to a MTFA– marauding terrorist firearms attack] or [ensure that it can still be co-ordinated should the shopping centre’s staff] lose the control room. You have to remember that if they’re going to do something on a large scale, then [they’ll probably go for] the control room.” He says while GVS’s software allows control room functionality to be set up elsewhere if required, staff can control many of the features required during such an emergency with their two-way radios.
He also explains that the element of GVS’s software that is attracting most interest from shopping centres is its ability to assist with a lockdown event which requires either an in-evacuation (moving staff and/or customers to a safe location within the premises) or an evacuation. The software integrates with the door access controls within the shopping centre’s service corridors to create an area that can be locked down using a press of a button on a user’s radio. Bingham concludes by saying that the most time-consuming aspect of setting up this capability is obtaining the necessary information from the appropriate door access control vendor to allow the integration between their products and the two-way radio system.
We have seen that when it comes to two-way radio’s data capabilities, there is more than meets the eye at first glance. If you are an end-user organisation, it would be well worth your time to consider if any of your operational processes could benefit from the greater insight that these applications of two-way radio can give you.
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