When Computers Get Tough

One of its ruggedized displays stopped a bullet, says Scott Beisner, director of marketing for Data911 Mobile Computer Systems.

"The bullet came in through the front windshield," he recalls. "The officer had mounted the display on a pedestal, out of the airbag zone, and the bullet hit the back of the display, dropping into the officer's lap. And, the display was still functional. Although, I can't say every display will stop a bullet," he was quick to add.

One of the company's rugged systems was sole survivor of a collision which rendered the police vehicle and all equipment inside unsalvageable — except for the computer, which continued to run "flawlessly," says Anthony Visnjevic, marketing research analyst for AMREL.

The fact is, the law enforcement environment is no place for sissies, and that includes the equipment. Regular computers, be they laptops, mobile or fixed-mount, just won't cut it, says Visnjevic.

When it comes to selecting ruggedized computers, many of the same factors must be considered — such as ergonomics, space restrictions, placement (particularly in relationship to the airbag), design/type (handheld, laptop, fixed mount/component systems) processing speed, memory, wireless capabilities, available options, cost, job demands, etc.

In going ruggedized, agencies have an even greater opportunity to more closely tailor their equipment to their needs, particularly as these are affected by their environment — both work and weather.

It's not hard to make a case for the advantages ruggedized computer equipment confers.

"The biggest challenge to computer equipment as it relates to the law enforcement environment is just that — the environment," says Lt. Glen Athey with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

"As with most any agency, the vehicles we operate are, at times, subject to extreme stress," says Athey. "This is not only hard on the vehicles, but everything in them. This is why (when selecting computer equipment) the ruggedized aspects were very important to me."

His biggest concern was overheating/air circulation due to crammed trunk space. The officers place their CPU in the trunk, along with other equipment, making the potential for overheating high, especially during the hot summer months. Vibration, thanks to a preponderance of dirt roads in its jurisdiction, adds to the chances of overheating as well.

In addition to temperature extremes, vibration also can wreak havoc on computer equipment, says Robin Timmer, P.O. II (top patrolman) with the Glastonbury Police Department in Connecticut. He says the non-rugged laptops the agency is currently using — but phasing out in favor of a ruggedized, three-piece modular system — have not been holding up well to the abuse inside the vehicle. The laptops are mounted in a generic mounting bracket between the front seats.

"We have an increasing problem with keys popping out of the keyboards, which then demands the entire keyboard must be replaced at an expense of $144," he says. The agency's new system mounts in a docking station, which features anti-vibration shock absorbers, and the computer itself also is designed to deal with vibration.

Add to the list of what negatively impacts computer equipment, such as shock, dropping, water, dust and humidity, and it's not hard to see why agencies might turn an affectionate eye toward ruggedized computers. These computers are specifically constructed to stand up to such abuses much more than commercially available or non-ruggedized systems.

The process of deciding on a ruggedized computer system is not that different from the process agencies should undertake when selecting non-ruggedized equipment. However, there are some added variables to consider.

Like their more fragile cousins, ruggedized computers offer various forms of wireless communication (WiFi, Bluetooth and/or 802.11) and allow for the attachment of options, such as scanners, barcode readers, etc. They come with ratings which designate their ability to withstand temperature extremes, shock, drop, dust, liquids, vibration and other challenges. Look for those compliant to MIL-STD-810F and check out the IP ratings, which designate the degree of resistance to the intrusion of dust and liquids.

Some models are fully ruggedized; some are partially. Agencies should consider the stresses the equipment faces and match this to the job demands. They also should ask manufacturers to verify claims with proof of outside testing.

It's also a great idea to field test these systems, say both Athey and Timmer. "We took a vehicle that was being retired and used it as a test," says Timmer. "We then contacted several manufacturers and requested to test and evaluate the equipment. The vehicle would be sent out on patrol and an officer was required to complete a critique form as to how the equipment worked. I would highly recommend this for any agency in the market for computer equipment." Be sure to test the display in direct sunlight, glare, nighttime and extreme viewing angles, suggests Athey.

Deputy Steve Sprague, with the Bexar County Sheriff's Office in San Antonio, Texas, agrees one of the best things to do is go right to the source — patrol officers (of course, not leaving out fleet operations and the IT staff).

"The patrol officers themselves are invaluable in providing information on real-world use of items installed in their cars," he says. "Too many times, departments overlook this valuable pool of information in favor of using higher-rank officers who may not necessarily use the equipment they are asked to assist in purchasing for others."

Here's a closer look at some of the ruggedized systems available to law enforcement agencies.

AMREL/American Reliance. Headquartered in El Monte, California, this company manufactures (among other rugged systems) the Rocky Mobile, a three-piece, fixed-mount (and airbag-friendly) rugged computer system ergonomically designed with tight cabin space in mind, says Visnjevic. (It also offers a smaller version of this system, the Rocky Mobile Jr., for agencies that face even greater space restrictions. This version, which has all the features of the larger, can fit into the glove compartment.)

The Rocky Mobile offers a resistive touchscreen that works with or without gloved hands. This LCD display has a reading of more than 1,300 nits, and also comes with a single button screen blackout and night dimming features. The system has two true serial ports (four optional), which Visnjevic describes as important for private radio system use. Wireless capabilities/options include GPRS, Bluetooth and/or 802.11.

The design is compliant to MIL-STD-810F and IP54 for temperature extremes, shock, vibration, humidity, water and dust. The system is constructed to withstand the harsh environments that confront law enforcement users, such as collisions, high-speed pursuits, accidental spills from liquids and dust, says Visnjevic.

DAP Technologies (a subsidiary of Roper Industries). Among other products, this Quebec City, Canada-based company (North American headquarters are in Duluth, Georgia) manufactures the Microflex CE3240, a rugged handheld mobile computer. A new version of this is the CE3240B, says Benoit Masson, director of marketing. For awhile, the two products will co-exist and both will be available on DAP's Web site.

The B version uses an Intel XScale PXA270 microprocessor, and has a 520-MHz processing speed with 128 MB of flash storage and 128 MB of static RAM. Users can choose between a wireless (containing WiFi or 802.11g and Bluetooth) and a non-wireless model. It's also possible to add interfaces that will allow for use of a commercially available WiFi card or a card that enables communication over other wireless networks.

The rugged handheld has a 3.5-inch VGA color touchscreen, 22-key numeric keypad and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that have a life of two to four working days, says Masson. This device is compliant to MIL-STD-810F for shock, drop and temperature (can withstand temperatures ranging from -4 degrees Fahrenheit (F) to 122 F) and carries an IP65 rating, which means, says Masson, that it is completely dustproof. Although it cannot withstand immersion in water/liquid, it can handle spraying water, such as rain.

(Regarding the IP rating, Masson says that the "6" indicates the level of dust control, which ranges from 0 to 6, and that the "5" designates the degree of waterproofing, which runs from 0 to 8. DAP's other products carry a water rating of 7 and can handle immersion in liquid for up to an hour, he says.)

Data911 Mobile Computer Systems (a division of Hubb Systems LLC). Based in Alameda, California, this company has been designing mobile hardware and software systems for public safety agencies for more than 20 years, says Beisner.

Its Data911 M5 mobile computer system is a fifth-generation rugged PC manufactured by the company. Its features include a 12.1-inch, 100-percent, airbag-compatible, 1,200-nit, sunlight-visible, rugged touchscreen display (on the Ford Crown Victoria, this can be mounted to the dash) that measures 1.5 inches thick and 11 inches wide.

The CPU, display and power supply are constructed from a rugged aluminum chassis that not only protects the components but also encourages more efficient heat dissipation, says Beisner. They offer several models of keyboards that range from spillproof to spill-resistant.

"The computer is designed for the rugged environment of the public safety vehicle," says Beisner. "Most laptops are designed for home or office use. The display is sunlight-visible and dimmed for nighttime use. When mounted against the dash, the display can be viewed by both the driver and the passenger without moving it. The computer is resistant to extreme temperature ranges, from -13 F to 150 F. It also is resistant to humidity, shock and vibration. All of these environmental specifications have been tested by third-party labs according to MIL-STD-810F methods."

Itronix (a General Dynamics company). An Itronix company spokesperson describes the Spokane, Washington-based company's GoBook XR-1 as "the world's smallest and lightest fully rugged wireless notebook."

The notebook uses the Intel Core Duo 1.83-GHz processor, with an FSB of 667 MHz. It offers increased graphic capabilities, and comes with a 40-GB or 80-GB, 5,400-rpm SATA hard drive; a power management utility; and an integrated Ethernet 1-GB LAN and Microsoft's XP Professional operating system, says the spokesperson.

It weighs 6.8 pounds and "has a very small footprint." The touchscreen display uses a multi-layer, anti-reflective coating process for improved outdoor viewing. Keys are glow-in-the-dark, and a backlit keyboard, for better viewing in low-light conditions, can be purchased as an option.

The GoBook meets MIL-STD-810F for drop, shock and vibration, and carries an IP54 rating for water and dust.

"The entire notebook is watertight and features an innovatively designed keyboard that can withstand liquids and abrasive dust and dirt particles commonly found in outdoor and industrial environments," says the spokesperson. "For operations in sub-zero weather, the product incorporates standard heaters for the hard drive and display, assuring operation in the coldest environment while extending these components' lives."

Kontron America. The Kontron Envoy II System is a three-piece, mobile data system consisting of the Kontron CVX-Server, a rugged display and a rugged keyboard, explains Randy Wisebrod, sales technical support manager for the Poway, California-based company.

"The Kontron Envoy II was designed specifically for installation and use in professional service vehicles," says Wisebrod. "Its three-piece, modular design allows the monitor and keyboard to be mounted near the operator while the server is mounted in the trunk, under the seat, in the glove box or elsewhere away from the passenger area."

He ticks off the system features, which include a 1.8-GHz CPU; up to 1-GB RAM; a removable hard drive (also can be a heated hard drive); multiple I/Os; expansion slot capabilities; a 12.1-inch, 1,400-nit resistive LCD touchscreen; and keyboards with varying degrees of ruggedness. A variety of options that allow users to customize the system also are available. For example, with the addition of a card, the system can be used as a GPS.

The Kontron Envoy II meets MIL-STD-810F ratings for shock, vibration and temperature and the server's internal subsystems are protected via rugged, unitized aluminum construction.

Motorola Public Safety. The ML900 rugged notebook from this Schaumburg, Illinois-based company, offers integrated wireless capabilities over local, cellular and private wireless networks so information can be shared for situational awareness and decision support, whenever and wherever emergencies occur.

Designed to stand up to harsh environments, the ML900 operates in extreme temperatures from -20 to 60 degrees Celsius, withstands multiple 3-foot drops, and is sealed from water, dust and humidity. The rugged notebook comes equipped with a high-resolution, 13.3-inch display so users can view multiple applications simultaneously.

The ML900 contains an integrated 500-dpi fingerprint reader. This biometric recognition system allows officers to protect their data without the headache of remembering passwords, and provides convenient "authentic user only" access.

Panasonic Computer Solutions. This Secaucus, New Jersey-based company's fully rugged CF-19 and CF-30 Toughbooks are built to go wherever the job takes the officer. From the field to the station, Toughbook takes the punishment while its shock-mounted removable hard drive performs the most advanced applications flawlessly. Both mobile PCs are designed using the military's MIL-STD-810F test procedures that measure equipment durability under harsh conditions including drops, shocks, vibration and extremes in temperature.

The Toughbook 30 is encased in magnesium alloy, with durability designed into every seal, hinge and connector. Armed with Intel's dual core processor, it is a fast, fullyrugged mobile PC, built for quick processing and wireless connectivity.

The Toughbook 30 allows a user to communicate in real time from remote areas, access databases online and run sophisticated software applications, even in the harshest environments and its 1,000-nit brightness makes the screen visible in any condition.

"Law enforcement professionals demand durable, reliable solutions that work wherever they do, and they trust Panasonic to deliver that," says Jan Ruderman, director, public sector, Panasonic Computer Solutions Co. "The Toughbook CF-19 and CF-30 with wireless connectivity and 1,000-nit display are the latest examples of how Panasonic engineers will continue to push the limits of technology where our customers' missions require it."

RuggedNotebooks.com. Based in Orange, California, this company manufactures (among other ruggedized notebooks, tablets and handheld computers) the Rough Rider Max.

"The transflective display actually reflects light back to users rather than just using more bulbs or making it brighter," Alan Shad, vice president of marketing, explains, adding that this proprietary technology is desirable because using more bulbs can compromise battery life and result in a heavier and hotter-running device.

The Rough Rider is compliant to MIL-STD-810F (it can withstand temperatures of -4 F to 122 F) and is IP54 rated for water and dust. Shad says it can handle up to 4 inches of rainfall per hour and describes it as showerproof, not waterproof. Dust resistance is achieved through the use of double seals inside and outside, and through the use of an O-ring gasket that encircles the entire cabinet and LCD for what he terms, "a second line of defense." A copper tube cooling system distributes heat evenly throughout the unit's case. Various mount options, such as floor or console, are available, as are universal mounts.

Trimble Navigation. One of the rugged handheld computers made by this Corvallis, Oregon-based company is the Recon X. Dale Kyle, product manager for rugged handheld products, describes this as a handheld in a PDA form factor and says it's a little smaller than most handheld computers.

The Recon X is designed to handle immersion in water for up to 30 minutes. (On the company's Web site is displayed this device at the bottom of a fish tank, a space Kyle says it has occupied for "a long time." It is easy to see that it still works. "However, we don't recommend doing this," he adds.) It can operate in temperatures ranging from -22 F to 140 F.

The electronic rugged components are shock-mounted on a PC board and then set into a polycarbonate shell that has a rubberized overbolt to help absorb shock. The touchscreen display is recessed to protect it and is also "kind of" shock-mounted, says Kyle. It has an eight-button keypad.

Kyle says the Recon X (and the larger version, the Ranger X, a ruggedized handheld which offers a full alphanumeric keyboard) to be useful for where law enforcement does not work out of a traditional vehicle, as in the case of motorcycle, foot, bike and scooter patrols, or as a supplement to the in-vehicle computer when data collection in the field is necessary.

Twinhead Corp. of Fremont, California, recently launched its Durabook D13RY and D14RY models. The two models, from Twinhead's ruggedized notebook line, feature fast Intel Core Duo and Core 2 Duo processors as well as optional TPM 1.2, a hardware-based security technology that meets the highest international requirements for data protection.

Both new Durabooks offer a magnesium-alloy case that is 20 times stronger than ABS plastic. Offering a much higher survival rate after drops and bumps, Durabook cases have an anti-shock mounting design that protects the LCD screen and hard disk drive from damage and data loss, and a flexible HDD cable design which absorbs shock from drops.

To add to its durability, the Durabook's spill-resistant design insulates the keyboard, touchpad and adjacent buttons, stopping spills from leaking into sensitive interior parts.

Durabook notebook PCs are built tough enough to meet MIL-STD-810F standards for rugged performance. Each Durabook can withstand drops of 29 inches onto hard surfaces — the U.S. military performance standard. Whether bouncing in a pickup truck, dropped on an airport concourse or caught in a cloudburst, Durabook mobile computers are manufactured to take the punishment.

Today's newest police computers have walked into the gym and gotten "tough."