Time was that the only computer in a patrol car was the Casio calculator inside the duty bag of the driver. Now just a decade later, computers are so common in patrol cars that some have more than one.
There's a computer inside the engine that monitors the fuel injection, there's probably still a Casio calculator inside the officer's duty bag (maybe even the same one he had back in the '90s), and there's a computer mounted inside the car that can be used to receive and transmit information, write reports, and perform dozens of other functions.
Today, the most common patrol computer is a laptop that's designed for use in and out of the car. But it's not an ordinary laptop. The stress of patrol duty would turn an ordinary laptop, even the latest high-end Macs or PCs, into really expensive doorstops.
A patrol car is a vicious environment for a computer. First of all, cars produce a lot of vibration when they are revving down the road or even just idling. You and I hardly notice this vibration because we're used to it and because our bodies are considerably more robust than high-tech electronic equipment, but the constant vibration of an operating patrol car can shake loose the chips in an ordinary laptop.
Vibration is one major concern for patrol car computers. Another, more important, concern is the treatment the computer will receive by its using officer. Cops can be really hard on computers. They can spill coffee on the keyboards, accidentally rap the display screens with a hard object, or drop their machines.
The solution for agencies that want to operate computers in the torture chambers known as patrol units is to buy ruggedized systems. These computers have been cooked, frozen, bashed, dropped, shaken, covered with dust, and splashed with liquids, to prove they can take the punishment.
The following is a quick look at some of the leading manufacturers of ruggedized computers for public safety applications and some of their most popular models.
El Monte, Calif.-based Amrel makes a variety of computers for public safety operations, including the Rocky Unlimited ruggedized notebook, the Rocky Mobile on-board system, and the Rocky Tablet.
The company's most popular current model is the Rocky Unlimited RT7-1 ruggedized notebook. It's both a powerful and tough laptop that can be used in or out of patrol vehicles. The Rocky Unlimited RT7-1 complies with MIL-STD 810F and boasts an Intel Pentium M processor with SpeedStep technology and a 2MB Level II cache. Storage is handled by a 40GB removable hard drive; an 80GB drive is available as an option. The computer can accept up to 2GB of RAM and comes standard with 512MB of RAM. Its display is a 13.3-inch TFT LCD screen.
Data911 makes a variety of video and computer equipment for use in public safety vehicles. On the computer side, the Alameda, Calif.-based company specializes in on-board systems and tough, highly visible displays.
The Data911 display product line includes three different screen sizes-15 inches, 12 inches, 8.4 inches-that are sunlight visible and can be easily adjusted for any lighting condition. Each of these touchscreen displays is scratch resistant and offers high-resolution digital image quality.
Some of the most interesting products that Data911 makes are keyboards and displays that can be used with other manufacturers' laptop systems. The company says that some agencies decide that they really don't want laptop systems after making the investment. Data911's displays and keyboards let those agencies turn their existing laptops into fixed on-board computer systems.
On-board computers are the public safety specialty of Winchester, Va.-based Datalux. The company also makes cart-mountable computers for hospitals.
Datalux's most popular law enforcement computer is the Tracer. The Tracer is an all-in-one system that can be installed and removed by unplugging a single connection. Its sealed case dissipates heat through pipes so there is no fan noise, and a thermal protection feature shuts down the system when it is left idle in a sun-baked car.
The Tracer is ruggedized to MIL-STD 810F. Processor power ranges from a 1.4-GHz Pentium M with a 2MB cache to a 1.3-GHz Celeron M with a 512KB cache. System memory starts at 256MB of RAM and can be expanded to 1GB. Data storage is handled by a 20GB hard drive.
The Tracer's high-resolution touchscreen display is enhanced with three anti-reflective films for excellent sunlight visibility. It can also be dimmed at night.