Tech Success: Rugged wireless modems track public vehicles

IT solutions in action

Project: Public utility vehicle tracking

Agency: Aurora, Colo.

Partners: AT&T Corp., Bedminster, N.J.; CompassCom Inc., Centennial, Colo.; and Sierra Wireless Inc., Richmond, Canada

Goal: Aurora wanted to equip its public utility vehicles, such as street sweepers and snowplows, with tracking mechanisms to keep better track of their whereabouts. CompassCom needed to attach wireless modems to the vehicles to have them report through AT&T's network.

Obstacle: Most wireless modems weren't built to withstand harsh day-to-day conditions. The vehicles work in extreme heat and cold. Such vehicles also vibrate.

Solution: Aurora purchased the Wireless MP 750 GPS Rugged Wireless Modem from Sierra, built especially for extreme operating conditions. CompassCom offered an automated vehicle tracking solution that could operate over AT&T's new General Packet Radio Services network.

Payoff: Aurora reported a 15 percent boost in productivity, as managers are able to dispatch vehicles more efficiently.

Christian Solomine, director of sales for CompassCom

CompassCom Inc.

CompassCom, Sierra use GSM network for dispatch system

Officials of Aurora, Colo., have improved the productivity of the city's non-emergency vehicles by equipping them with an automated vehicle tracking system.

Because dispatchers know where the city's vehicles are, they can better allocate both vehicles and equipment. Voice traffic on radios also has been reduced. As a result, the use of tracking devices has improved productivity of the department by 15 percent, according to Lynne Center, project engineer for Aurora.

CompassCom Inc. of Centennial, Colo., built the system using rugged wireless modems from Sierra Wireless Inc. of Richmond, Canada. By the end of the year, CompassCom expects to have 46 vehicles equipped with tracking mechanisms.

CompassCom has specialized traditionally in providing tracking solutions for emergency vehicles. The rollout of new data packet networks is opening a market for tracking systems for non-essential vehicles as well, said Christian Solomine, director of sales for CompassCom.

Aurora, population 290,000, wanted to keep track of its street sweepers, de-icing tankers, snowplows and other maintenance vehicles. It already had a network in place, installed by Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Va. That system, which was used only for emergency vehicles, was based on an older Cellular Digital Packet Data protocol. However, the city had trouble upgrading the network to accommodate more vehicles.

So the city decided to migrate its network to a Global System for Mobile Communications, or GSM, network, offered by AT&T Corp., Bedminster, N.J. Although used predominately throughout Europe, only recently have carriers such as AT&T and Cingular Wireless LLC, Atlanta, rolled out GSM services in the United States, said Jason Cohenour, senior vice president of worldwide sales for Sierra. General Packet Radio Service, the packet data service that runs over GSM, is touted as being able to more efficiently use existing bandwidth to transfer data.

Through wireless modems, the vehicles report their locations over the network, along with additional information about the activities of the vehicles. The location information received then is piped into the city's geographic information system, showing dispatchers the location of the vehicles.

A key to the network is the Sierra Wireless MP 750 GPS Rugged Wireless Modem. The modem can withstand extreme temperatures, vibration, shock and humidity. The modem can also receive Global Positioning System coordinates, which are used to identify locations of the vehicles.

"The city needed something that was going to be able to survive the rugged in-vehicle environment," Solomine said. The unit can operate in temperatures ranging from minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit to 158 degrees Fahrenheit.

The modems also interface with in-vehicle sensors, allowing the modem to transmit additional information about the vehicle's activities, such as what kinds of materials are being used to de-ice the roads.

"It's very rugged. We have stories of police cruisers being totaled, but the modems in the trunk were still working," Cohenour said.

Rugged modems are a sideline for Sierra, though the public safety market is where the company got its start, Cohenour said. Sierra's AirCard line of wireless modem cards for PCs accounts for the majority of the company's sales, according to Hoover's Online of Austin, Texas.

Cohenour said that as telecommunications carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc., New York, upgrade their wireless infrastructure to third-generation services, opportunities will grow to use the higher data throughput that these networks can offer for enhanced services.

"For any agency that has field professionals that need high-bandwidth access to information, these services are a great fit," Cohenour said.

The company is also working closely with Verizon to support the provider's rollout of third-generation services in San Diego and Washington. The company offers PC wireless modems for third-generation networks, although it hasn't introduced rugged models for this market yet. On the government side, Sierra works with distributors and resellers such as GTSI Corp., Chantilly, Va., and Ingram Micro Inc., Santa Ana, Calif.

CompassCom sees a greater role for Sierra modems in its work. CompassCom specializes in providing turnkey vehicle tracking solutions for municipalities such as Aurora. The company develops its own software that feeds tracking information into GIS systems. It is a partner with Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., Redlands, Calif., which is one of the dominant GIS providers.

Recently, CompassCom installed devices in 64 trucks, aircraft and helicopters for the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District, a Florida office charged with keeping Monroe County free from mosquitoes. The devices communicate via an AT&T network.

An average public safety implementation runs from $250,000 to $400,000, depending on the number of vehicles, Solomine said. CompassCom received about $50,000 from the Aurora work, though the city received the modems separately through AT&T as an incentive to upgrade to the new network.

The MP 750 wireless modem is priced at about a $1,000, though discounts are available for large purchases, Cohenour said.

Government Computer News Staff Writer Joab Jackson can be reached at jjackson@postnewsweektech.com.

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