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NIST Takes Interoperability to New Heights

Agency researchers are working to improve communications technology for first responders.

Amid broad federal, state and local efforts to improve public safety communications, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is leading research to establish interoperability among diverse government organizations that aid the public when it is most in peril. The agency’s goal is for legacy systems and new mobile technologies to exchange vital voice and data communications in a crisis.

The horrific attacks on 9/11 quickly illuminated the need for greater interoperability in communications among first responders. Since then, the requirement to share information and communicate effectively via radio during natural disasters, fires, crimes or catastrophes has only increased for police officers, firefighters and other public safety personnel.

Acting on recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, Congress passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 to establish the First Responder Network Authority, known as FirstNet. The law provided $7 billion and 20 megahertz of electromagnetic spectrum for the public-private partnership development of a nationwide first-responder broadband network. Last year, FirstNet awarded a 25-year, $6.5 billion contract to AT&T to build, operate and maintain the high-speed network. Section 6303 of the law also provided the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) with $300 million through 2022 to support the transition to broadband and advance public safety communication technologies to operate on the new network.

The Public Safety Communications Research Division (PSCR), part of NIST’s Communications Technology Laboratory (CLT), is overseeing the related research and development (R&D) and programs as well developing corresponding requirements and standards used by 60,000 agencies and 5 million first responders, according to the laboratory. In addition, the PSCR conducts testing and evaluations, executes security research, and performs modeling and simulation.

While FirstNet received its congressional funding immediately through the law’s borrowing authority, NIST had to wait until the proceeds came in from the government’s spectrum auctions.

That level of windfall required careful planning, explains Dereck Orr, PSCR division chief, NIST. “Even though we didn’t have the money in 2012, we knew we needed to start planning for the day that we got it,” Orr says. At a 2013 summit of public safety, industry, academia and federal stakeholders and partner FirstNet, NIST identified several focus areas for the PSCR, “where we would use this once-in-a-lifetime injection of funding,” he says. “It is not only about the research that we are doing in-house. We are also putting out a lot of money in grants. So more than half of that [$300 million in congressional] money is going to outside partners through grants, cooperative agreements, prize challenges.”

The focus areas include developing location-based services; transitioning land mobile radio (LMR) to Long Term Evolution (LTE) devices; and developing mission-critical voice capabilities for LTE, user interface and user experience technologies, and data analytics. Two additional programmatic areas, security and resiliency, cut across all the focus areas. “We have to look at security concerns,” Orr emphasizes.

For the first round of research, the laboratory awarded $38.5 million last year to 33 entities under NIST’s Public Safety Innovation Accelerator Program. The first round of funding covers all focus areas except user interface and user experience research; last month the laboratory awarded grants for that research, Orr says.

For one of the main focus areas, the PSCR is helping to usher in the use of LTE radio devices from LMR devices—in operation since the 1920s. And for the time that the two radio technologies coexist, officials will make sure that the radios are interoperable. “So if someone shows up on the scene with just an LMR radio, they can talk to someone who shows up with a FirstNet radio,” Orr says.

Next, the PSCR is working to get the LMR voice capabilities that are mission-critical onto an LTE device, including direct mode, group communications and push-to-talk capabilities. In direct mode, if first responders are in an area with no coverage, then LMR enables first responders to speak directly to one another, “like a walkie-talkie,” Orr says. “So if you are in a basement with no coverage or in the middle of a wildfire with no coverage, they can still communicate in groups or one-to-one.”

LTE devices also need to be able to handle group communications. Currently, LMR devices have a mechanism for group communications that does not waste a lot of radio-frequency resources. “[First responders], they don’t talk one-to-one,” Orr notes. “Typically, they talk one to many. That doesn’t currently exist in the LTE devices effectively, so that is something that has to be done.”

Then, the push-to-talk feature needs to be adapted for LTE radio. The button for this capability, when pressed on an LMR device, “holds the floor so that whomever is speaking cannot be spoken over, which is critically important because of the type of information they are transmitting,” Orr says.

The laboratory also is working to develop performance indicators to be able to compare LTE features to those of an LMR. Until public safety officials “are confident that an LTE device performs as well [as] or better than their LMR device, they are not going to even be willing to consider transitioning,” Orr admits. The PSCR recently published its first key performance indicator document, about mouth-to-ear latency, and is moving on to the next indicator.

Orr considers the other areas of the PSCR’s research “very future looking.” The PSCR’s work in location-based services aims to improve the ability of first responders to track personnel and assets inside a building. The capability needs to function whether or not a building has an existing infrastructure to support that kind of tracking, Orr notes.

In addition, NIST, like many other organizations, is looking for better analytics. “The flood of new data that will be coming across this network will provide public safety responders with all kinds of new opportunities to make better decisions,” Orr says. “So it is really going to be key to have smart analytic engines on the back end.” As such, the laboratory is hosting an analytics prize challenge centered on data identification. Competitors will find ways to scrub public safety-related datasets of sensitive or private information, leaving behind core data that an analytical engine could employ to aid operational decision making.

The PSCR also is looking at enhanced user interfaces for future communication devices. “The first iteration of a next-generation FirstNet phone is going to look very similar to our current cellphone smartphones,” Orr surmises. But since smartphones are not necessarily geared toward the public safety sector, user interfaces need to be built up from the ground.

“You don’t want to give firefighters cellphones with a mapping program on it and send them into a building on fire and expect that they’ll be able to use it,” Orr says. “One, they can’t see it in front of their face because there is so much smoke and, two, they can’t interact with it because they have gloves on.”

In this area, the PSCR is considering a gamut of advanced user interfaces—heads-up displays, voice commands, audio cues and haptic feedback. “All of those kinds of interfaces are what is going to help public safety get information to and from the system in a way that is designed for their operational needs,” Orr specifies.

And because researchers cannot realistically create emergency situations in the laboratory—and “we can’t go into a fire and do testing,” Orr says—the PSCR is employing virtual reality testing applications. It is conducting a prize challenge for developers to show how they would navigate through a complex building environment. “We are leveraging virtual reality to re-create user environments and build tasks so that we can have a public safety person go into a burning building virtually and have a job of finding a victim,” Orr says. “With virtual reality, we can create any user interface we can think up.”

The PSCR is tinkering virtually with an augmented display for a firefighter’s helmet. “We can actually measure which of the interfaces are going to help them perform their tasks better,” Orr says. He shares that this work “has really captured a lot of people’s attention and a lot of interest right now. Virtual reality is being used by everybody. We have a twist on it that NIST is using it for testing technologies that don’t even exist yet.”

In addition, the laboratory is looking into 3D geolocation with its ongoing work in location-based services that use light detection and ranging (LIDAR) for indoor mapping. It just completed a prize challenge in which competing teams developed algorithms to see how accurate a smartphone could be when using its accelerometer and barometer sensors. The laboratory also procured a LIDAR backpack to use for accuracy testing of rapid indoor mapping. The PSCR is evaluating how LIDAR and point cloud information can generate indoor maps that could be used in conjunction with analytics, Orr says. Researchers are experimenting with user interfaces to find the best indoor navigational heads-up display.

As for DHS-related projects, the department is funding NIST to look at the Internet of Things of the first responder, especially a responder’s personal area network. “If you have all of these sensors that are available to them on the body or near the body, how does this all come to together, and how does it come together in a secure way? How does it exchange information, and what are the standards that need to be put in place to allow that happen?” Orr asks.

Other R&D efforts are looking at prototypes with industry partners for so-called deployables, such as very small LTE networks “that would fit in a shoebox,” Orr shares. “The idea is that if you can get that small box on a drone and then into the air, you could in essence create an entire LTE platform with no need for backhaul and have it anywhere you needed it, in the middle of nowhere.”

That kind of network could cover a set of 50 to 100 users and could be scalable to mesh together multiple units to create larger and larger networks, Orr notes. “PSCR is funding a prize challenge in this area, but a lot of the work is being informed by the work we did with DHS in the past with these deployables,” he says. Researchers are looking at inexpensive drones­—less than $20,000—designed to carry a payload of 20-30 pounds and to fly “long enough to be useful for this scenario of carrying an LTE platform.”

As for challenges, Orr identifies time as the main consideration in his work at the PSCR. “The [congressional] trust fund expires in 2022, and we have to get a lot done in a short amount of time,” he shares. “That is why we are partnering with industry, doing grants. We need as many people as possible to do this.”

“We all love our jobs, and we know why we get up in the morning,” Orr says. “Our job is to work very closely with public safety and to understand their needs and requirements, and to assess technologies as we move forward against those requirements, and determine whether or not some of these capabilities will meet their needs.”