Washoe County Sheriff's Office RAVEN helicopter. Photo courtesy of Washoe County Sheriff's Office
Moore’s Law is a computing term that originated in 1970. This concept states that processing power for computers will double every two years. Since just about everything in aviation benefits from increased processing power, aviators have directly benefited from this exponential increase in capabilities. Leveraging these capabilities has proven to be a force multiplier for small law enforcement units.
Many small aviation units within the law enforcement community in the U.S. operate surplus military aircraft acquired through the U.S. Defense Department's Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO). LESO originated from National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 1997, which allowed the transfer of excess Defense property to law enforcement agencies. Since the program began, more than $6 billion worth of property has been transferred.
Washoe County Sheriff’s Office in Reno, Nevada, is one of the agencies that took advantage of the program. Operating two Bell Helicopter OH-58A Kiowas and two Bell H-1 Hueys, Washoe County’s Regional Aviation Enforcement (RAVEN) unit relies on these expanded capabilities now available at greatly reduced costs due to Moore’s Law.
These low-cost solutions are effective and can be acquired for much less cost than you might think. GPS tracking is becoming a more and more common necessity. It not only adds a measure of safety to your aviation operations, but allows the upper administration to provide feedback to the public on requests for information.
For example, Washoe County had received a complaint about its helicopter flying too low at night, and the caller was adamant that it was the sheriff’s helicopter. Using a tracking system, we were able to prove definitively that not only was it not the sheriff’s helicopter, but that the sheriff’s helicopter was not even airborne at the time.
All aircraft assigned to RAVEN have an automatic flight-following capability. As federally carded initial attack firefighting platforms, the unit's firefighting helicopters are required to have automatic flight following while operating on federal fires. Latitude Technologies provided a lightweight and relatively low-cost solution for tracking its aircraft. Latitude’s SkyNode devices provide real-time and historical flight data for every helicopter in the fleet. This data is accessible via a web page and allows the user to accurately determine the aircraft’s altitude, speed and location. This is an important capability, not only for fire missions, but for covering more than 6,600 square miles of territory in the county alone.
Washoe County Sheriff's Office RAVEN helicopter uses an iPad installed with Foreflight. Photo courtesy of the Washoe County Sheriff's Office
As the primary search-and-rescue asset in northern Nevada, RAVEN operates at high altitudes in the high-density altitude environment of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Given that we operate in some of the most demanding flying conditions, we rely on accurate and timely data to make decisions. Weather is always a concern in the Sierras, so we rely on real-time weather. We access this information by using iPad Minis installed with Foreflight. Using a Verizon Jetpack hotspot, we are able to keep up to date with the constantly changing weather conditions. The data is transmitted via the cell phone jet pack to the iPads. Having that up-to-the-minute weather picture available in the cockpit has helped to keep our crews safe.
Future technologies we are exploring include satellite communications capabilities. Northern Nevada is a desolate place, particularly when you get more than about 10 miles away from Reno. Oftentimes our crews experience no cellular service, and our radios can’t find a repeater for communications with the dispatch center. Our search-and-rescue units have been using satellite phones for years, and now that capability is available for use in flight. Flightcell makes the DZMx satellite communication system. The DZMx will automatically switch between voice, SMS, cellular or satellite communications transparently for the end user.
The limiting factor of cell towers may soon be a problem of the past. Simi Valley, California-based Airborne Wireless Network could solve this by turning commercial aircraft into communications satellites. By installing broadband transceivers on aircraft and using them as signal repeaters, the company believes these aircraft will act, in effect, like low-flying satellites. With a touted range of 240 miles per transceiver, multiple aircraft would be able to provide continuous coverage on the ground based on the sheer volume of traffic airborne at any given time.
As technology advances by leaps and bounds, so can your capabilities. The availability and accessibility of the latest cellular and satellite based systems are improving — and cost is decreasing. It is important for smaller operators to keep up with the latest technologies. There are plenty of solutions out there to keep crews safe and situationally aware during missions.
Sergeant Doug Russell is the RAVEN supervisor and chief pilot at the Washoe County Sheriff's Office.