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High-Tech ‘Mission Kits’

The successful police use of helicopters for everything from routine patrols to airborne vehicle pursuits, missing-person searches and counter-narcotics reconnaissance is vastly enhanced through the specialized equipment that supports these duties.


July 8, 2010
By Mike Minnich

Topics

The successful police use of helicopters for everything from routine patrols to airborne vehicle pursuits, missing-person searches and counter-narcotics reconnaissance is vastly enhanced through the specialized equipment that supports these duties.

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An intricate array of high-tech equipment helps Canadian aerial police helicopters, like Edmonton’s EC-120B, successfully patrol the skies. (Photo courtesy of Edmonton Police Service)


 

Currently, state and local law-enforcement authorities in the United States, and 21 in Canada, operate more than 600 helicopters. And while an experienced pilot-observer team, a limber small helicopter and an appropriate suite of radios can achieve a lot during daylight aerial policing, the fact is a large proportion of patrols and call responses occur in the hours of darkness. This has resulted in the acquisition of a dizzying array of specialized sensor systems, enhanced navigation capabilities and multi-faceted communications packages in support of these vital missions.

What follows is an analysis of key add-on equipment categories that turn a general-purpose light utility helicopter into a high-tech crime fighter – makes and models of specialized equipment most prevalent with Canadian law-enforcement air units.

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Enhanced Communications
Police helicopters need to communicate with not only air traffic control, police dispatchers and multiple patrol cars, but also fire departments, ambulance services (including aerial) and disaster-rescue teams – across a wide range of frequencies, in analog and digital modes, and in encrypted or clear-speech systems.

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Canadian police helicopters use FLIR or Wescam imaging systems to help operations. (Photo courtesy of Eurocopter Canada)


 

It’s this enhanced communication that can make the difference when trying to apprehend criminals, says Dan Riopel of the Calgary police force. “Cockpit resource management is absolutely vital when you’re doing police flying,” says Riopel, who’s been flying one of Calgary’s Eurocopter EC-120s since 1998. “To stay safe when you’re relatively low and maybe doing a lot of ‘yanking and banking,’ to follow a target on the ground means that my tactical flight officer and I talk to each other constantly, so we each maintain maximum situational awareness. For that, we have hot mikes for intercom, and there’s a push-to-talk switch on the cyclic for when I need to contact air traffic control. Generally, I don’t need to broadcast to the other police units, and the TFO doesn’t need to talk to ATC, so we can keep things simple. Of course, there are also selector switches to change radios for when we do need to change frequencies.”

Riopel usually also has a police radio active in the ‘background’ in his headset so he can follow the tactical situation on the ground, but any significant development there will also be explained by the TFO over the intercom.

Sgt. Al Mack at Durham (Ont.) Regional Police describes that force’s highly secure and versatile digital comms system – that he spent several years helping design – and which may be unique in North America.

“We developed an application employing the Motorola iDEN system on the Telus public-switched cellular network,” Mack explains. “We have our entire police service, including our helicopter, arranged into three broadband comm channels or ‘groups’ and any user – be it a squad car, base unit or the aircraft – can broadcast to everyone in that group, or just input selected four-digit user ID numbers for private conversations.”

Fully operational since 1999, the network saw the number of cellular towers in Durham grow from 18 to 62. When a voice or data message is sent, it gets broken into six discrete portions by the first tower it encounters, and the complete message is not reassembled until it arrives at the recipient’s radio. (Mack notes that Durham’s Bell 206 helicopter also has traditional aviation radios for ATC interaction by the pilot.)

“In addition to being highly secure, this system also incorporates the ability to ‘roam’ outside Durham and interact with any other police force or other entities that we might require,” he adds.

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious consensus regarding the makes and models of radio suites chosen for Canadian police helicopters, but some recent research in the U.S. reveals the most popular units used south of the border include the Technisonic TDFM-6148, the Motorola 5000 and the Wulfsberg P2000.

Picture Perfect: Imaging Systems
Camera and recorder systems that offer magnified video-image capture in both daytime (electro-optical) and nighttime thermal (infrared) modes provide both the means to spot and track a target on the ground, and also to have a record of that interaction for later use as evidence in court. Every Canadian police helicopter has such a unit mounted under the fuselage, and the chosen dual EO/IR camera systems all seem to come from either FLIR Systems (its 7500 or 8500 models) or L3 Wescam (models in use include the MX12, M12-650 and M12DS-200).

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The RCMP’s AeroComputers UltiChart LE-5000 mapping system is a boon in residential street searches. (Photo courtesy of RCMP)


 

“Our current camera system – an L3 Wescam M12-650 – was purchased through funds allocated from the Civil Assets Seizure program, and represents the second time we’ve upgraded since the initial suite of equipment in our original helicopter back in 2000,” says Const. Dave Saunders, who’s been a technical flight officer at York (Ont.) Regional Police for all those 10 years, and has logged almost 4,000 flight hours.

Unusually, York’s EC-120 aircraft is equipped with not one but two 12-inch Avalex monitors (one in the rear cabin), which allows a second TFO to be carried on some missions, and also vastly improves the training environment for new TFOs.

“There’s a lot of information that can come up on the monitor, from camera imagery – we have that system turned-on continuously during operational flights – to data on the moving-map display, and we’ve found that sometimes six eyeballs are a lot better than four,” says Saunders.

Imagery from the on-board cameras must be recorded, of course, and for that purpose the Avalex 8200 family of digital video recorders seems to be the most commonly specified product.

Moving-Map Displays
While the pilot of a police helicopter doesn’t generally have to undertake precise long-distance cross-country navigation, the ability to know exactly what street and house number your TFO is observing can be vital – and that’s where moving-map displays come in.

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Like other Canadian aerial policing units, York Region’s Eurocopter EC-120B uses the Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun to help nab bad guys. (Photo courtesy of York Regional Police)


 

“Our Avalex digital mapping system – with the local streets-and-addresses database regularly updated through our Regional Municipality – is a huge aid to how we can manage incident responses,” Saunders notes. “Being able to designate exactly what structure or property you’re going to, and see a satellite map of the area in advance, really lets us develop that vital mental picture before we’re overhead.”

The Calgary police force have recently updated to Paravion Technology’s Augmented Reality System, which, developed in conjunction with Churchill Navigation, merges the moving-map concept with the live imagery from the video camera using Global Positioning System technology.

“The Augmented Reality System – combined with a feature called an Inertial Management Unit – basically superimposes the relevant street grid and street names right on top of whatever the camera is currently showing on the monitor,” pilot Dan Riopel explains. “Whether we’re using day-time video or night-time infrared, the map is overlaid and very legible. The TFO can touch a zoomed-in location on the screen, and we’ll immediately get the full street address. We used this feature during an actual incident response just on my last set of shifts, in fact.”

Canada’s police helicopters primarily employ the Avalex or Paravion systems, although the RCMP birds are equipped with the AeroComputers UltiChart LE-5000 moving-map system.

Public-Address System
It seems that only a minority of Canadian users – the Mounties and Calgary, at a minimum – currently equip their helicopters with a public-address “loudhailer” system. The Calgary force have both their aircraft equipped with Northern Airborne Technology TS-92 units, and have found them valuable.

“We used it as recently as last month for a big fire up in Airdrie, where we told people from the air to get back from the three houses that were on fire, and to get off the roof of a nearby home,” Sgt. Michelle Cave reports. “That public-address capability works great for such situations.”

Lighting the Way: Searchlights
The ability to illuminate a nighttime target on the ground – for the benefit of the aircrew or investigators below – has always been a basic requirement of police helicopters. Every Canadian police air unit polled employs the same product: the Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun. With an intensity of between 30 and 40 million candlepower, a variable beam width of four to 20 degrees, and the ability to illuminate from as far as a kilometre away, this unit obviously fills the bill quite adequately.

Night-Vision Goggles
Initially developed for military special-operations purposes in the 1960s, night-vision goggles (NVGs) have expanded their utility – and availability – into various private spheres, and especially civilian nighttime helicopter operations. Able to vastly intensify existing light and provide a green-toned image that reveals objects almost as well as the naked eye can in daylight (although with less fine detail), NVGs offer a significant benefit to both the pilot and TFO of a police helicopter at night.

“We just recently acquired NVGs, and are now fully operational with them,” says Riopel. “They’re working out quite well.”

When it came to training for that transition, the Calgary crews had some good luck: their current chief pilot, Cam Dutnall, is a former Canadian Forces search-and-rescue pilot, and has considerable experience on NVGs. He and another CF vet who now flies with Alberta’s STARS air ambulance service, Alex Baldwin, got together and created the NVG training course for the Calgary police air unit.

“We all ended up doing five hours of NVG work before we were considered qualified,” Riopel says. “Some people wonder if NVGs are of much use over a brightly lit urban area at night, and, of course, that’s not what they’re designed for, but we’ve found that the NVG image doesn’t ‘bloom’ or dazzle your vision as badly as in earlier product generations when you look down into an illuminated area.

“Of course, we’d normally be using the IR camera and not NVGs if we’re looking for a person or vehicle in a built-up area, but we had an episode just recently at the edge of town where we were looking for a pick-up truck,” he adds. “I spotted one with my NVGs on, and then we picked it up on the IR camera and it turned out to be the vehicle we were after.”

Riopel says the NVGs really come into their own if the helicopter needs to follow a vehicle out into the dark countryside or if ever an emergency landing were required while over the city.

“Within the municipality, there may be areas that are dark, and you’re not really sure…is that a school in there, or is it a wide-open field?….are there wires? You can look down with the goggles, and either eliminate it or say, yeah, that’s a good area to land in,” he notes.

While there are at least five manufacturers of NVGs in the U.S. – and approximately another dozen such firms around the world – Canadian police operators seem to have found ITT’s Model F4949 to be the preferred product.

Complete Package
While high-tech equipment contribute significantly to the needs of airborne policing, there increasing sophistication and inter-networking can also be problematic, says Saunders.

“If there’s a potential drawback to all this technology,” he says, “it’s information overload. There can be a tendency to rely too much on some of these systems, and what I try to teach our new TFOs is that the bad guy or the missing person is not ‘actually’ in the monitor! They’re down there on the ground, and you need to look outside the aircraft as well. We plan to acquire night-vision goggles by the end of this year, and that will encourage this ‘look-out-the-window-too’ mindset. That technique can give you an important perspective that just focusing on the camera monitor cannot.

“The solution is lots of training, and emphasizing the need to always keep the big picture in mind. That’s why I think it’s extremely valuable when we fly with a second TFO in the back seat: you’re less likely to get everybody fixated on any one input.”

Winnipeg’s Choice: Sprucing up the new Eurocopter EC-120B
On May 7, the City of Winnipeg and Province of Manitoba announced the winner of the contract for a first-ever police helicopter for Manitoba’s capital city. The newly established Winnipeg Police Service Air Support Unit will operate a Eurocopter EC-120B. The $3.5-million project has also gained $1.3 million in provincial support for the operating expenses, and this is expected to become an ongoing annual subsidy.
Winnipeg Police Detective-Sergeant Dave Dalal has been involved in this proposal virtually from the inception, and recently detailed the timeframe for delivery of the aircraft as well as some specifics of the specialized-equipment suite.

“We anticipate taking delivery of the aircraft this October, and we’re hoping that the Air Support Unit will be fully operational within a month after that,” he says. “All the mission-specific features that we’ve chosen will be installed by Eurocopter Canada, so the helicopter should arrive in Winnipeg ready to go.”

Those extra features include a FLIR 8500 camera, SX-16 Nightsun spotlight, NAT 250-001 public-address system, a Novanet Strata digital data-downlink system, the Paravion Augmented Reality System map display, an Avalex 8240 digital video recorder, and an Avidyne Traffic Advisory (collision-avoidance) System. The aircraft will also have both air conditioning and an enhanced heating system.

“All police and other emergency-response organizations in Manitoba employ the Motorola FleetNet system, so our communications package will let us talk to virtually everybody,” Dalal notes.

Regarding personnel for the air unit, Dalal says advertisements for two full-time civilian helicopter pilots (and possibly one part-timer to backfill for vacation periods, etc.) will be placed shortly, and TFO training will be achieved with the assistance of their opposite numbers in Edmonton and Calgary. The exact plan for this TFO training is still being formulated and, similarly, the arrangement for aircraft maintenance services had not been finalized.

Home base for Winnipeg’s helicopter has not been determined, but the likelihood seems to be hangar space in some portion of Winnipeg International Airport.

Dalal notes he and some other Winnipeg Police members have already joined ALEA (the U.S.-based Airborne Law Enforcement Association), and they anticipate access to some valuable training and operational knowledge through this well-respected professional organization.

“We want to express our sincere thanks for all the advice and help we’ve received over the past year or so from such established police-helicopter operators as the RCMP, York Region, Calgary and Edmonton,” said Const. Nick Paulet, who’s worked with Det.-Sgt. Dalal on the project. “Their support was unbelievable, and much appreciated.”

Hardware Store: Where to locate high-tech policing tools
AeroComputers Inc.: www.aerocomputers.com
Avalex: www.avalex.com
Avidyne: www.avidyne.com
FLIR Systems Canada: www.flir.ca
ITT: www.defense.itt.com
L3 Communications Wescam: www.L-3com.com
Motorola: www.motorola.com
Northern Airborne Technology Ltd.: www.northernairborne.com
Novanet: www.novanetcomm.com
Paravion Technology: www.paravion.com
Spectrolab: www.spectrolab.com
Technisonic Industries Ltd.: www.til.ca
Wulfsberg (Cobham Avionics): www.wulfsberg.com
 


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