Technology developed by a New Zealand company could prove a massive help to emergency services, particularly in the event of a natural disaster.
The versatile comms backpack, the brainchild of Wellington developer Paul Hill, CTO and part-owner of Chinzacorp, has already attracted interest from security services overseas. Initial units have also been bought by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for deployment in overseas embassies.
In addition, Fujitsu has signed a local reseller agreement.
Post 9/11, more than 20 top US companies (plus NASA) have contributed their best technology to help develop a similar a mobile communications unit. Underscoring the need for this was the knowledge that one reason so many firefighters died in the Twin Towers attack was because their communications failed.
A backpack with multiple comms options was the result of these efforts by NASA and the US companies, but one drawback remained: it had limited power-life — just four hours.
Hill picked up on the comms backpack idea and looked at how to solve the power problem. This month, he released his version of the comms backpack — multiple versions, in fact — and seems to have solved the power issue with the help of solar technology and power conservation.
In fact, so powerful is one version of Hill’s ICE (integrated communications electronics) system that it is capable of powering a household, while also providing communications and internet capability. Indeed, it might even be able to sell power back to the national grid.
“We went back to step one and built a power system,” Hill says. “The units had to do what people needed in an emergency. We’ve used several bridging technologies, because we didn’t want to have to build multiple versions, so the units are modular and multi-functional. They’re easy to add to as technology changes.”
ICE comes in several flavours: a briefcase version; a backpack version, and one in a slightly larger, Pelican case. Modular, it is built on a base core-system which incorporates a microcomputer, a power-management system, and integration software.
It may sound simple, but there is an enormous amount of technology packed into a comparatively small space.
Much of the technology is off-the-shelf, but it is the way everything connects that is clever.
The units bridge high-frequency, very high-frequency, ultra high-frequency; the plain old telephone system (POTS); cellular; satellite, and VoIP communications. There are back-ups to back-ups, meaning the user should always be able to communicate in some form.
Radio talks to cellphones, email to analog radio, and there is even an amateur TV option — if there is a unit at each point. It’s slow, but available via a radio connection. An extended version, with an antenna, will offer Wi-Max.
The units each contain a computer, with a multiplicity of extra drivers for plug-ins. They can be updated from a central point (say, in a military situation, where new radio codes are needed); they always know where they are, through a common GPS; and will hand-off connection to the strongest carrier when moving around. Thus, communications might move from CDMA to GMS, without having to re-authenticate.
The solution is local, regional and global, because the units can be daisy-chained to provide long-range communications.
The backpack unit has external solar panels that will keep the cells charged. There is also an on-board water purification system, a lightweight one-man tent and a sleeping bag, and a first-aid kit. The backpack can hold food for up to seven days, and it can also monitor the heart health of the user.
Power-management is the key to all this. Hill says the power is very flexible and scalable, with the units being able to plug into anything for power. Solar is the primary source.
“In a pilot we could link into the national grid and sell power back to the power companies.”
The units can store up to eight kilowatts, sufficient to run a house.
Hill says the units are suitable for emergency services, police, the military, diplomatic services and security services. Full encryption is provided by an on-board unit from Australian company SignalGuard, which is the master reseller for encryption company Senetas.
One of the owners of SignalGuard is Ken Stokes, a co-founder of Cardinal Networks (now Jade Software Corporation) in New Zealand. Another company owned by Stokes does the manufacturing for Chinzacorp, which assembles the ICE units in New Zealand.
The ICE units range in weight from 6.996kg (briefcase) up to 20kg (Pelican case).