In the teeth of a worldwide recession, the word of the day for police forces — U.K. ones at least — is collaboration. In reality this has been the word for a year or more: traditional county constabularies have belatedly realized that buying in bulk, whether helicopters, searchlights, uniform sweaters or whistles, is only a matter of common sense.
More rural police air support units (ASUs) have been feeling the pinch for several years. During this time several have ruefully pointed out to Rotor & Wing that their more metropolitan colleagues have had money "thrown at them" to procure anything they asked for while they, hidden "out in the sticks," have been reduced to scouring the market for second-hand FLIR cameras.
Their reaction may be rueful, but largely, they are not resentful. In the wake of terrorist bombings in London and Glasgow, gaps in city surveillance, intelligence gathering and resource management were all too obvious. Lodon, Strathclyde (covering Glasgow) and Manchester have all since accepted new aircraft with the latest equipment to help them overcome these deficiencies.
That’s on one side of the pound coin. On the other side, as part of a collaborative project set up in 2007, the County of Essex force claims to have saved £500,000 ($752,000) by sharing its helicopter with its Kent neighbor. Thankfully, rather than being returned to Her Majesty’s inland revenue, these savings have been invested in upgrades, flying hours and pilot training.
Elsewhere we now have consortia buying off-the-shelf helicopters fitted with the same role equipment and the same cockpit/cabin layouts. This never used to happen in the old days. In March, ASUs in Suffolk, Cheshire, North Wales, Cleveland, Midlands and Chilterns ordered six identical helicopters — the Eurocopter EC135 P2i. The units are dotted all over England and Wales and before long the new helicopters will be made available to up to 18 of their neighbors, and also contribute to a pilot project trialing more efficient joint police air operations across England’s Midlands.
The Eurocopter airframe, at least, is proving popular elsewhere in Europe. Last August, Bavaria’s Ministry of the Interior ordered eight new Eurocopter EC135 P2i for the state police helicopter squadron. Its aircraft are slated for delivery between September 2009 and April 2010.
The French Gendarmerie has already begun training on its new EC135. The first three of 15 EC135 T2s have been delivered to the Gendarmerie unit at Villacoublay, near Paris. The ships have the Wescam MX-15 EO/IR turret, SX-16 searchlight and ECS broadcasting system.
Capt. Pierre Faure, commander of the Villacoublay unit, said that crews were training on type and will begin operations in June. "The EC135 delivers much greater capability for us, particularly with an 800-kilogram payload improvement over the old Ecureuil. The improvements in the MX-15 over the old Sagem system are like comparing night with day."
Meanwhile, the U.K. consolidation process has already gained a critical mass and another bulk purchase, this time of five helicopters, is due to be announced soon. Further consolidation will be driven by the need for greater operational efficiencies, economies of scale and, well, the economy.
One unit executive officer confirmed that a fledgling national air strategy, under development for several years by the national Association of Chief Police Officers, is now being pushed forward. "I think everyone can see the benefits of borderless tasking and the benefits of calling on the nearest, or more capable aircraft to deal with the task in hand. There’s a lot to get our heads round but we’ve taken the first concrete step."
Buying in bulk offers economies of scale in role equipment as well: partners are once more able to look at new, instead of "pre-loved," kit. British police helicopter units have been at the cutting edge of role equipment for 20 years or more, so even in straightened times, the products that they are introducing right now will be on the wish lists of colleagues almost anywhere else in the world.
The Skyquest Aviation AVDU-5000 mission display system has almost saturated the U.K. market and the company is now eyeing overseas opportunities. In a way, the video management system is not really a tool at all. Rather it is a facility for assembling the visual outputs of all the sensor tools and presenting them in a way that a police observer can use to maximum advantage.
Skyquest specializes in integrating video monitors and recording devices, and has spent the past several years introducing wider and wider displays — its biggest weighs in at a whopping 20 inches — and clever functionality to go with them. It offers split-screen, touch-screen, picture-in-picture, the works. And police officers love it.
London’s Metropolitan Police has integrated the video monitoring systems (VMS) aboard its three EC145s, which have accumulated 5,000 hours in less than two years. The systems control five mission screens in the cabin (on two 15-inch displays), plus two up front, and multiple recording decks to take feeds from the various sensor devices around the aircraft. Each crew member — including the pilot with a foldaway screen — retains full functionality.
One of the cabin displays is a four-way-capable device known as the "quad." The Met’s technical officer, Sgt. Richard Brandon, said, "The quad has revolutionized the way we do business in London. We are now able to use 100 percent of the camera information available. Previously, we could only use one third because we could only watch one sensor (daylight/infrared/spotter) at a time. The moving map makes up the quartet.
"We’re developing operational techniques that enable us to use wide angle to select the target and keep it on screen, and the narrow angle camera to give us the details we need — including automatic number-plate recognition. And all on the same display. Operationally it’s made a huge difference. In my opinion it’s changed London air support."
One of the main benefits of the VMS is the ability to start and stop the four recorders from any of the mission displays. "In the past we had to use a separate remote control, which would always be in the wrong place when a particular crewmember needed it. Typically, we make two recordings on every job, one full screen (a clean version) and one showing the quad with the moving map. When you link the two together, you get very solid evidence of what happened on the ground."
Greater Manchester Police’s Phil Rainford has had a similar experience with his unit’s MD902. "The integration of the systems is like nothing we’ve ever experienced. It has totally revolutionized the way we work."
Skyquest Marketing Director Geoff Turner said that the VMS is now on "about 20" of the 35 police helicopters currently flying across the U.K. This growth seems set to continue internationally as the police helicopter matures into much more than an expensive vantage point.
There always has to be a launch customer and police helicopter units, in particular, hate to be the first to try anything new. They would much rather someone else undergo the heartache of introducing a new product, and later make a move on something that has all the bugs ironed out. So, full marks to the Manchester police for pioneering the Australian xenon beam Trakkabeam A800 searchlight on their MD902.
The lightweight light was excluded from the identical six contract, as it has yet to be included in the home office framework, but it may stand a better chance in the future five deal: indeed, the Manchester fit could become a template for that next multiple order. MD Helicopters and its U.K. distributor Police Aviation Services are undoubtedly concentrating hard on that one.
The Trakkabeam light shines sharply with no black-spots and its wavelength is said to be more attuned to the human eye, so less operator fatigue. It features an internal six-filter wheel to aid vision in poor visibility, or when using the IR camera or NVG.
The unit reports that the light is performing well and any serviceability problems have been efficiently addressed. For Trakkabeam, business development manager Ian Winkworth said that having a field tech rep and spares inventory in the U.K. gave him a marketing edge over the traditional supplier, Spectrolab, with its Night Sun 2.
"Crucially, all our components are commercial off-the-shelf, so they are not subject to ITAR (international traffic in arms regulations). If a component is not in stock, we can get it from Australia in four days, not 90."
Trakkabeam’s first international sale was to the Fairfax County, Va. unit. Winkworth reports that the South African Police has just ordered 11 searchlights for its mixed AS350/Bo105 fleet, and "significant interest" from forces in the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe.
After a long drawn-out process, the Devon & Cornwall Police ASU crews are finally qualified to make single pilot NVG takeoffs and landings in their BK117. Flight under goggles has been subject to a height minimum of up to 500 feet since the unit first pioneered their use in the U.K. 10 years ago.
When it came to this ultimate clearance, the CAA raised an objection that their current Nite Op goggles only had a single battery supply to each tube, even though there is no record of a tube power ever failing. It also used a dedicated and expensive battery but the new ANVIS goggles will utilize two AA cells, linked to both eye pieces by a single wire.
The new goggles will be part of the fit on a new EC145, due for delivery at the end of this year. D&C Pilot Pete O’Connor admits to being the aviator least likely to use the current NVG because of their weight, but says they offer so much flexibility that every unit, at least every rural unit, should have them.
"They are of limited use over cities but if we are flying over the middle of Dartmoor, for example, our operational and safety margins are considerably widened. We may need to attend a road traffic accident in a narrow lane or react to a cockpit warning. Anything out of the ordinary, really."
Although quick to anticipate the market’s increasing demand for NVG, Eurocopter’s decision to equip the EC145 with a compatible cockpit appears to have backfired. The OEM failed to seek certification and, for now, it cannot be used with a single pilot. This does not unduly affect two-pilot crews, such as the members of Germany’s North Rhine Westphalia force. NRW claims to be the first air unit in Europe to qualify its BK117 on NVG. Germany’s regulator, the LBA, was not unduly concerned about their EC145 upgrade. For U.K. operations however, which are all single-pilot, it would be a technical, legal and training nightmare to train police observers to act as second pilots.
Another handicap to wider acceptance of NVG emanates from the U.K.’s regulating authority, the CAA, which says that operators must re-evaluate their NVG-compatible cockpits if they upgrade their goggles, even those certified to Gen 3 standards. That makes an already expensive upgrade even more so.
Well-funded air units are always looking for the latest toy and, on the face of it, the automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) scanning camera has a lot going for it. ANPR scans motor vehicle registrations and checks them against information stored in a variety of databases, including those of the U.K.’s Police National Computer and the DVLA (DMV). The cameras claim to identify vehicles from 700 feet and the system can check up to 3,000 number plates per hour. To stay current, the latest database needs to uploaded to patrol cars or helicopters as often as practicable.
While the software is fitted to a number of police helicopters, its effectiveness in the air has so far been limited: the computer is said not to like being swung around in the sky. The North Wales ASU has tried it out using a laptop, but found the camera not to be that effective. Chief Pilot Dave Taylor said, in any case, if they are interested in a vehicle, it would be just as quick to read its plate on the spotter and tap it into the PNC. "Using us to hover over a car park, taking random number plates to check on the owners’ tax or insurance would be a very expensive use of the resource."
Richard Brandon said that the jury is still out on ANPR — it is aboard their EC145s but not integrated with the Skyquest VMS. "We had problems with that process at first and are still looking at how to use it tactically." But he can see the value of sitting over a carpark, especially if he has to be there anyway. "We can scoot along the lines of cars and just see if we get any counter-terrorism hits, say. We checked out every car at a Tesco store in five minutes flat the other day."
"ANPR is often used in a reactive way, to help us work out how many times a car of interest has taken a specific route for example, but our job is to be pro-active. If our person of interest is inside a building for example, there’s no harm in doing a quick sweep. You never know what you might turn up."
Every task management tool we have covered so far relies on digital technology. But the hardware that has arguably contributed most to the effectiveness of the current crop of U.K. police helicopters is, surely, the lowest-tech solution of all. California-based Meeker Aviation’s step mount for the EC135 and 145 is proving a huge success in the U.K., delivering up to 70 kilograms (154 lbs) of extra payload to helicopters that, in the past, housed much of their mission equipment in a belly pod. Induced centre of gravity limitations are also a thing of the past and the mounts are said to be virtually vibration-free, certainly well within limits.
Cal Meeker’s mount was FAA and EASA approved last year, and since then, he has shipped more than 20 sets to the Americas, Europe and Australia. He started working with Eurocopter U.K. (formerly McAlpine Helicopters) early last year and has formed "a great relationship" with the completion centre.
He told Rotor & Wing, "while the OEM’s multi-purpose step is very good; we were able to make ours stronger and stiffer, and enable up to four payload arms to be fitted. It can carry those four payloads simultaneously, two per step. Over the next two years we will be delivering 10 of these sets to Eurocopter U.K."
Those who have evaluated the step mount are unanimous in their praise: apart from all-but eliminating vibration and CG issues, they have been able to dispense with the high skids and now have a nearly unimpeded view underneath and forward.
The step was included with the six-EC135 consortium order and, as Rotor & Wing went to press, the Suffolk Police was scheduled to be the first to take delivery. Sgt. Ady Powell says their new aircraft was the test bed for the Meeker Mount. "We were very impressed with it. We were able to put the sensors where we want them, camera on the front right, NightSun on the rear right, and as a result we will have a much more flexible tool."
Police forces run on regional lines have always jealously guarded their independence, which has led to a wide variety of the equipment hung on their helicopters. Collaboration is leading to fewer opportunities for vendors but, arguably, more valuable ones. From now on, they had better get used to it.
With missions that are both high pressure and heavy workload, law enforcement pilots are constantly on the lookout for new technology, next generation, or even not-yet-developed equipment to support their mission requirements.
With the possible exception of military attack helicopters, few pilots fly with more add-on mission requirement equipment than the airborne law enforcement community. The more effective yet less complex this equipment can become, the more they want it...ranging from better radio and tracking systems to smaller searchlights to reduce the drag of those currently hanging from the aircraft’s belly.
One of the initial problems is that there are no helicopters designed from the beginning to be airborne law enforcement helicopters, so they are bought based on the power they provide for a wide range of missions. Then the law enforcement agencies start draping hundreds of pounds of equipment on them.
"We load the helicopters with a tremendous amount of electronics, so we’re always at the limit," particularly the single-engine helicopters, said Sgt. Jorge Gonzales, officer in charge of support for the Los Angeles Police Department helicopters. "It seems to be that the OEMs are under-building the aircraft in terms of performance. They don’t have to be any faster, but we need the ability to actually digest the power the engines have. Generally, the light single-engine helicopters can be transmission-limited under certain conditions and unable to make use of all available engine power."
With the pressure put on the pilot to keep the aircraft within its limits during a high-stress mission, which requires a high level of concentration outside the cockpit along with constant monitoring of the gauges, another highly desired wish list item is the head-up display (HUD).
"Los Angeles is a densely populated area, with very congested airspace. Our frequencies are constantly monitored by the media, and as soon as something big starts to happen...a vehicle pursuit, a manhunt, a shootout...the media immediately knows about it. We get along very well with them and understand that they are doing their job, and we have a very good rapport with them, but it’s like the old movie where no matter where you look, there are birds around you.
"There are pursuits where you will see maybe six helicopters beyond the police helicopters committed to the pursuit. And the aircraft are loaded so heavy that we’re always so transmission- or torque-limited that in some of the [required] maneuvers, we have to be careful not to over extend their limitations. Right now, the way they are designed, you have an eye out for the other helicopters that are going to run into you and you have an eye on the ground to see what the suspect is doing, so you’ve run out of eyeballs. But you still have to scan the instruments every few seconds to make sure you’re not getting into trouble. So it would sure be a lot easier if wherever the pilot looked, he could see at least his critical instruments." said Sgt. Gonzales.
The highly populated LA basin is also the focus of two other greatly sought after wish list items, Gonzales said. One is voice activated radios. LAPD helicopters currently fly with some 350 pre-programmed radio frequencies in order to cover 22 LA patrol divisions, all the surrounding communities and all of the other law enforcement and emergency response agencies with which the LAPD works. With a suspect under pursuit able to move from one jurisdiction to another simply by jumping over a fence, the tactical flight officer (TFO) has enough to deal with just keeping the searchlight and his binoculars on the suspect without having to look up the appropriate radio frequency, then dial it in.
"The TFO should be able to tap a button on the floor to activate the system, then just say the frequency he wants or the name of agency he wants, and the radio gives it to him. This is basically old technology. Anybody with a cell phone can do it. And if anyone with a cell phone can do it, we should be able to do it. That would be huge." said Sgt. Gonzales.
Phil Tilford, chief pilot for the Phoenix Police Department Air Support Unit, said that a very desirable piece of equipment would be a tactical radio system that is both "user friendly and in-aircraft programmable with a screen prompting menu that will guide the less-than-expert through frequency and tone code input requirements." A major example of this need was during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when literally hundreds of helicopters from around the country flooded into the area, providing tremendous assistance, but were seriously handicapped by massive confusion in radio frequencies.
The second greatly sought after item would be a system that slaves the FLIR system, spotlight or camera system to the TFO’s helmet at the push of a button, Gonzales said. "That would also take one more item out of the equation...the control box. This already exists for military helicopters such as the [AH-64] Apache and [AH-1] Cobra, but not for law enforcement helicopters."
While those items fall into the "wouldn’t it be nice if they were developed for us" category, other wish list items fall into the "we need these now" category.
One of these is the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT). On February 1, the Cospas-Sarsat satellite processing 121.5 and 243 MHz signals from ELTs was cut off following a request by the International Civil Aviation Organization to switch to the 406 MHz beacon. ICAO stated that the digital 406 MHz beacons "offer many advantages over analog 121.5/243 MHz beacons" in that they are quicker, more reliable and have greater accuracy.
An ELT is like a motorcycle helmet. You hope you never need it, but if you do, you need it more than anything else in the world. But it’s that "may never need it" that is the problem. Budget strapped governments tend not to put a lot of priority into something that may never be needed.
"All the other countries in the world have mandated [the new ELTs], but only approximately 18 percent of the U.S. N- registered aircraft have been retrofitted with the new 406," said Mark Gibson, V.P. of sales for Sun Aviation, Inc. "Right now they need to be replacing all their ELTs with the new 406 MHz ELT. It’s not going to do any good sending (121.5/243 MHz) signals up to the satellite because there is not a satellite receiving the signals any more."
Gibson also noted that another "hope you don’t need it but you really do" item would be Cockpit Voice Recorders and Flight Data Recorders (CVR/FDR) for helicopters. "They’re not mandated for helicopters in the United States, but there are a lot of grieving families out there who’s family member went down in a helicopter and there is no way for the NTSB to figure out what happened. We provide the L3 brand of aviation recorders for the United States, but it’s a hard sell because it’s not a mandate."
There is, however, a lot of new, state-of-the-art equipment that law enforcement helicopters are getting, with one source of new equipment resulting from the current economy. Instead of upgrading aging fleets, city, county and state governments are mandating a simple upgrading of the aircrafts’ mission equipment package.
One of these was the Fairfax County (Va.) P.D., which recently completed a $2.1 million mission enhancement program for their two Bell 407s, giving them a chance to actually get some of their wish list items into the aircraft.
As a result, and as mentioned earlier, Fairfax County became the first agency to have the new Trakkabeam A800 searchlight from Trakka Corp. This searchlight uses only 800 watts of power compared to the SX-16 1,600 watts and is smaller, producing less drag. Weight, however, is comparable.
A key advantage of the new searchlight is its multi-filter capability. At a push of the button in the cockpit, the TFO can change it from a bright white spotlight to amber, blue, green or even "covert IR." The latter filter allows the pilot and TFO, wearing NVGs, to place the beam on a suspect on the ground and see him clearly without the suspect being aware that he is being lit up. Also, any ground police units equipped with night vision monoculars can also see the suspect being lit up by the covert IR beam, according to Paul Schaaf, chief pilot for the Fairfax County Police.
The amber beam provides a less intense light with better contrast for landing in an LZ, and doesn’t blind the people on the ground, according to a Trakka Corp. spokesman. "It also works like a fog light when there is a lot of moisture in the air," he said.
The blue and green filters are available, although uses for them are still being developed.
"It just gives us a better quality of light, with a more pure and stable beam," Schaaf said. "It has a seven step motor and is much faster with a better feel for pointing the light. It’s also almost instantly on, compared to the older SX-16 NightSun. The hand control is also much smaller."
The A800 can be slaved instantly to the helicopter’s MX-15 IR/video system if the target is illuminated by IR, he said.
The county’s ME-407 package also provided a top-of-the-line Cobham Avionics package, including "GPS tracking and ADS-B in and out," Schaaf said. The Cobham system provides TAWS and hover vector mode, as well as "some flight data recorder capability."
Cobham also produces "synthetic vision primary flight display," another product that appears to be fairly high on pilots’ wish lists, according to Gordon Pratt, VP, business development for Cobham. This is a system that provides a "highway in the sky," giving pilots a virtual reality view of the airspace they are flying through. When flying in limited visibility, "you can see all the terrain around you, any mountains are in correct scale and perspective, with towers, antennas and other obstructions from the Jeppesen, FAA and FCC databases in the correct scale and perspective."
The Cobham system gets traffic from TCAS I or II systems, L3 Sky Watch "or even ADB-S," Pratt said. "We interface with the Garmin GDL 90 for ADS-B display of traffic."
The system also allows pilots to program their own approaches, such as hospital roof tops for EMS pilots or police pilots who do EMS work, he said.
The Cobham system also has both Class A and Class B Helicopter Terrain Avoidance Warning System (HTAWS), Pratt said. "We have completely eliminated terrain accidents in the aircraft equipped with the system, and it is very likely that HTAWS will be mandated within the next 24 months."
Pilots are also looking at the hover hold capabilities in the system. "Once you get the EFIS with hover vector into an aircraft and you get the Heli-SAS autopilot and SAS into the aircraft. Marrying the two is a relatively simple matter," Pratt said. "Historically, the systems have been too big and expensive, and only found in military helicopters. But our system is going to be light enough and inexpensive enough to be considered by law enforcement agencies. That’s the beauty of Heli-SAS, if you install it with EFIS, the whole thing only weighs 10 pounds."
Pratt noted that there are some 10 law enforcement organizations already using the system, "such as the Virginia Highway Patrol. The Texas Department of Public Safety has equipped all of its helicopters with it. The FBI uses it."
With military-grade night vision goggles becoming available to the civil market, police pilots are looking to upgrade to the latest and greatest. "Night Vision Goggles technology has now improved to roughly the resolution of the human eye, about 20/25," said Gary Higman, sales manager, aviation-DHS-nuclear, for NIVISYS Industries. "The main thing people are looking for now is a wider field of view. We currently have a 40 degree field of view."
Unfortunately, getting a wider field of view would be very expensive, probably well out of the budgetary range of most law enforcement agencies, according to both Higman and Don Morello, director, U.S. government marketing for ITT. Morello said that military pilots are now getting NVGs with four 16mm tubes, or "Panoramic NVG (PNVG), compared to one tube for the NVG going to the civil market. "Eventually this will be available to the civil market, but keep in mind that what we are talking about is extremely expensive by commercial standards."
One major benefit to the newer NVGs that are available to the civil market is "gating," the ability of the goggles to automatically adjust to light levels entering the tubes. Previously, pilots would have to lift the goggles off their eyes when entering a high light area, such as landing. With gating, the goggles can stay over the eyes and self-adjust to the light levels.’
Morello said there is currently a two-year backlog for the newer Generation III Pinnacle NVGs, although that does not mean a law enforcement agency would have to wait two years. It’s all done on a priority basis, he said.
NIVISYS Industries has just received FAA approval under a TSO for its NVAG-6 goggles being produced specifically for the civil market, and is currently producing about 200 goggles per month, Higman said.
GPS tracking is also becoming more and more desirable so that the ground control unit can maintain a visual image of the helicopters’ location in order to direct the closest ones to an incident.
While the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. police have been looking into getting GPS tracking for their helicopters, they would also like an on-going digital scan of calls going to the dispatcher on the ground, according to Sgt. Benton Herring, aviation division supervisor.
"On the ground we have the ability to go into the office and look at all calls and actually assign ourselves to calls," Herring said. "But in the air we’re blind except to the radio. We’ve got 13 different talk groups, and you still have to listen to ATC, so it gets confusing and you can miss stuff." Having an in-flight scan of calls "would allow us to sit there and look at a queue and see that there is a house break-in in progress that hasn’t been dispatched yet, and we’re less than 15 seconds out. It would be nothing more than a computer-aided dispatch system."