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Disaster management: Meshing for mission-critical operations

Recent events have shown just how critical a part good communications play during disasters. Developing Telecoms welcomes Nikesh Patel, business manager for Motorola's Government and Enterprise Mobility Solutions (GEMS) sector. He explains how seamless mobile wireless broadband solutions optimise emergency response. Mesh Enabled Architecture

Natural disasters and heightened terrorist alerts have become increasingly prevalent globally. When major incidents occur, the communications infrastructure may be damaged or destroyed, making it extremely difficult to co-ordinate emergency response operations. However, mesh networking technology looks set to change the way mission-critical and law enforcement agencies operate.

Mesh Enabled Architecture (MEA) solutions are intended to create a robust, mobile wireless broadband network that supports high-speed data, streaming video, voice messaging and position location, improving the safety and efficiency of first responders. Of course, having evolved from technology developed for military communications, mesh networking is proven, robust and secure, offering a self-forming, self-healing and self-balancing routing solution that allows wireless devices to become the network.

 Key Advantages of MEA

MEA networks leverage existing applications and mobile devices, supporting an end-to-end IP strategy, and they can be deployed cost-effectively and rapidly - because no conventional network infrastructure is required. Every device becomes part of the network, helping to relay signals from one point to another and forming a peer-to-peer mesh of wireless broadband coverage. 

A multi-point to multi-point network will seamlessly adapt to accommodate new users, routing packets of data between devices. Because the devices themselves serve as relay stations and routers, the more devices added to the network, the more efficient it becomes. Unlike point-to-point networks, it is self-healing: if a device fails, the network will route the signal around it.

 

The self-forming nature of this technology enables first responders to form a robust wireless broadband network instantly when responding to an incident, while MEA wide area solutions can be deployed to offer permanent mobile broadband coverage to metropolitan, country or state-wide networks.

 Real-time tracking of first responders using built-in position location technology - and this does not rely on GPS - allows the location of public safety and emergency workers to be displayed automatically on any computer. This improves safety and reduces injuries, while VoIP and voice messaging capabilities provide an emergency back-up to the primary voice radio communication system. In addition, cameras can be deployed quickly to monitor the response or for the purposes of surveillance. 

The system allows instant multimedia communications from moving vehicles and has been shown to function at speeds in excess of 200 km/ h.

 File transfers, field reports and database inquiries can be done on site, reducing office time and allowing emergency and public safety workers to spend more time in the field. 

Mesh in Action...

In two examples, the technology has already been embraced by police in Buffalo City (64km west of Minneapolis) and by the Ripon Police Department in California, who are using a mesh network solution to replace lower-speed cellular data connections that could not support access to large data and video files for police officers in the field. 

A broadband indoor/outdoor location system is providing a field-transportable, battery-operated device which tracks personnel and mobile equipment in real time, maximising the safety and efficiency of incident response. Each person and apparatus to be tracked is equipped with a personal tracking device or vehicle tracking modem, which is tracked by reference routers. Bio-indicators from first responders can be monitored wirelessly to improve their safety and reduce injuries. Smoke, heat, gas and other sensors can be deployed and wirelessly connected to a command centre to provide an early warning of approaching danger.

High Immunity

MEA networks can operate in either the 2.4 GHz ISM band or the 4.9 GHz band. Their multi-hopping capability allows dynamic frequency re-use, leading to high capacity and efficient use of the frequency spectrum. Even using the shared-spectrum 2.4 GHz band, a high level of immunity to interference is achieved - even in urban environments. 

Four hardware and software elements create the MEA network:

  • a wireless modem card which is included in many existing devices such as laptops and PCs;
  • a mesh wireless router that can be mounted on traffic or street lights to provide communications with mobile devices or in-building applications;
  • a low-cost Intelligent Access Point (IAP) which communicates with the wireless router and acts as the transition point from the wireless MEA network to the wired Internet and Public Switched Telephone Network; and 
  • a Mobile Internet Switching Controller that provides routing, switching and management functions for the MEA network.

Ideal for Emerging Markets

One market which will come under the scrutiny of the whole world is South Africa. She is battling crime, growing her burgeoning tourism industry, and is preparing to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup. MEA networks present a myriad opportunities for public safety and emergency response agencies as well as municipalities to circumvent limited funds, resources and infrastructure. 

*Motorola has recently added MeshNetworks' mobile broadband networking solutions to its wireless communications portfolio.

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