When new gadgets come on the market, I'm among the first to drool over them and contemplate how I'm going to justify my next purchase. It's easy to forget the work that goes into making those gadgets do what they do, those ones and zeroes that comprise their software. New software can be so complex that only the latest computers will run it, but it can also breathe new life into old metal and silicon.
So many of our tools are based on some kind of microprocessor, so it isn't just the devices immediately recognized as "computers" that benefit from these advances. Telephones, radios, and other gear also run on those lines of code we never see.
Communications hardware trends are moving away from dedicated, proprietary radios and data terminals toward consumer-grade devices. Consumer devices are often far more sophisticated than those developed for a much smaller market, taking advantage of the massive R&D that goes into a product that can produce millions in profit.
Your next portable radio might be an iPhone or a Droid. In the meantime, here's a look at software that you can use right now on the job.
Covia Labs DART Technology
Interoperability has been the name of the funding game for the last few years. Anti-terrorism preparation and natural disaster operations taught us that agencies have to be able to work together, talk to each other, and run off of the same game plan. Thus far, the answer to the communications problem has been to either junk the radios and networks in use in favor of new, cross-compatible models, or implement bridges between networks that can do the job, but also create a potential single point of failure.
Covia Labs is less than two years old as a company, but has a product with the potential to allow voice and data communications between any number of networks while everyone continues to use their existing hardware. Users and devices are added and removed from the operational network as needed, and when the operation is concluded, everyone goes back to working as they did before.
You've probably worked with platform-independent software like Java when viewing content over the Web. In order to play a game, view an animation, or otherwise interact with the host, you click on a link and a small application installs itself on your computer. When you're done, the application closes and is deleted.
Covia Labs' DART technology works similarly. A user of a laptop or smartphone might receive an e-mail containing a link to a Covia Labs server. Clicking on the link downloads and installs a small application allowing that device to communicate with others on the network, send and receive video, control other devices remotely, or perform any combination of these and other tasks.
A component called Covia Connector permits all peripherals attached to the connected device to also interact with the network, permitting the use of printers, cameras, repeaters, servers, and other resources by authorized users.
Voice communication across dissimilar networks is typically one of the most difficult services to implement with any satisfaction and reliability. Voice typically travels as a stream and in near-real time, so if there is a dropout or poor connection anywhere along the way, portions of the message are lost. Digital communications has done a lot to clear up these problems, but the result can still be an all-or-nothing proposition-you get a complete, clear message, or no message at all.
Covia's Push-to-Talk technology handles voice communications in a way similar to Multimedia Messaging Service, or MMS. You may have MMS capability on your cell phone. If you can take a picture or a video and then send it to another phone with a text message, that's MMS.
DART stores the voice message as a digital file, then transmits it to the intended recipient(s) to be played back on arrival. There is some latency (delay) in this process, but most users have found it tolerable, especially considering the reliability of the method. If a portion of the message is unclear, there's usually no need to ask for a repeat. The message is just played back again, like a voice mail.
This process also eliminates the problem of several people transmitting at once, "stepping on" other users. The messages are received in the order sent, even if the difference between transmission times was in microseconds. The digital files are transparent to the network, so voice, images, video, text, and other information is sent as quickly and reliably as any other.
"There's been an assumption in the industry that we need 4G networks to do mapping and command and control as well as reliable voice and data communications," says David Kahn, CEO of Covia Labs. "We've been able to get voice communications with acceptable latency over standard cellular networks like AT&T and Verizon."
Connected Applications have been developed for Windows and Mac computer platforms and most cellular phone devices and networks. Development is ongoing for Project 25-capable communications systems used by most public safety operations.