The anticipated influx of millions of visitors for the London 2012 Olympics has kicked off a parallel competition between the security agencies that keep the UK safe. Scotland Yard’s drug, murder and anti-terror squads are all going to be at the peak of activity during the summer months. They’ll be joined by other government agencies that keep an eye on immigration, customs and excise, and wider national security.
As ever, the effectiveness of these teams is in some way governed by their kit, the most important of which is likely to be the communications equipment, which these days means TETRA radio. All the government and private agencies that need to keep tabs on criminals and suspect individuals are clamouring for the latest radios and accessories from the manufacturers. The leaders in this field are currently Sepura, Thales and Motorola, but new contender Hytera is one of many challengers aiming to launch new devices in this race.
Naturally, TETRA covert radios require a robust network to operate and the UK’s Airwave network has been in operation for over a decade now. The market is expanding as the possibilities of TETRA are widened, according to Helen Bleasdale of Airwave.
‘The Airwave network has improved coverage, which was patchy in rural and urban areas. Once Suffolk police only had radio coverage in 17% of the county, but now TETRA radio works in 99% of Britain’s landmass,’ says Bleasdale.
Thomas Lynch, mobile radio market analyst at IMS Research, says: ‘It is generally in quite mature TETRA networks, like the UK, where you see covert radios being employed. It tends to start with first line users, such as the police, adopting it first, then fire and ambulance. After that you get additional government-related users, who have seen that it is a tried and tested medium and are now happy to adopt it for their own use. It is quite an advanced solution for a truly sophisticated covert system, but people are willing to pay a lot of money for that.’
The covert operations market is particularly competitive. According to Jim Luo, UK marketing manager for Hytera, technology available in the Chinese market could be available in the UK next year.
TETRA radios for the covert market will have to be slim, durable and easy to use, says Luo. But the big quality on which manufacturers will compete is the amount of discretion that can be built into these devices. Not only should they not give themselves away, they should not be subject to leaking information.
So TETRA radio users in covert operations must have equipment that is both easy to hide and easy to use. Anyone carrying a radio is going to arouse suspicion, especially among paranoid drug dealers, smugglers and terrorists who are on the lookout for police observers.
‘There should never be any indication that any of our users is carrying any comms kit,’ says Dave Callaghan, technical director for radio communications products at Thales.
The need to conceal a TETRA radio under any type of clothing has been a requirement of surveillance officers for some time. Officers that infiltrated football gangs in the 1990s had to conceal radios under their T-shirts.
Motorola Solutions says it listened carefully to police officers and used their experience to create its Discreet TCR1000 device, which it claims is the world’s thinnest TETRA radio. Like all vendors in this space, Motorola is in a constant battle to maximise battery life and minimise power usage of its handsets. It claims to offer eight hours of continuous usage.
However, it’s not just the size of the handset that’s important, it’s the ancilliaries that can make all the difference, says Thale’s Callaghan. The handset needs to be small enough to be secreted on a surveillance officer and the supporting equipment needs to be able to blend into the background too. The supporting peripherals make it possible to hide the presence of equipment in a car.
IMS’s Lynch observes: ‘Covert accessories suppliers such as Savox offer a tiered range of accessories. You can buy different levels of concealment depending on how covert you want to be in terms of how see-through your headpiece or earpiece is, for example. Some organisations want their ‘covert’ system to be seen, as it can act as a deterrent. But for true covert operations they want the best of the best, as these are the guys who are put into the most dangerous situations.’
Motorola has a wide variety of solutions to conceal the radio in the vehicle or on the motorcycle. Its accessories portfolio offers a complementary solution range to keep the officer undercover. This means accessories such as covert antennas, microphones, push-to-talk devices, loudspeakers, inductive loop system and control accessories can be installed quickly and discretely in as many positions as required.
In a vehicle, remote mount configurations allow you to store the base of the unit in the trunk and have the control head discretely mounted in the radio dashboard. A visor microphone and a foot push-to-talk button can be discretely installed to provide officers with an easy and safe handsfree communication solution.
A range of flexible and rigid antenna offer options for hiding the equipment in a car’s bodywork, while a new range of dual loop antenna can be wrapped around the body of an officer and hidden under a vest, turning them into a portable broadcast unit without raising any suspicions.
This raises another important design issue: comfort. Surveillance work is long and arduous. The load on the equipment can be high, as the devices may be in constant use. On the other hand, they need to be comfortable to wear, which calls for obviation against irritations like overheating.
Motorola Solutions EMEA John Callaway says: ‘The strain of being a surveillance officer with long shifts in uncomfortable conditions can take its toll on productivity; whether officers are stressed, too cold or too hot, cramped or bored, they still need to focus on their mission. Devices are secondary. The TCR1000 TETRA covert radio is designed with this end user in mind. It’s very lightweight, easy to use and has a small form factor, so it can be hidden in a pocket and when combined with the accessories gives the discretion which is crucial to the safety and effectiveness of the user.’
Will this summer’s Olympic Games drive TETRA radio to new heights of performance? Data services and data rates could get better in future, says Thales’ Callaghan. ‘It could be that police national computer and vehicle checks in future could become available on TETRA,’ he says. ‘There’s some discussion of smart handsets with preloaded maps.’
The advantages of positioning, enabled by GPS options, could be useful in the fight against crime, says Vitor Rodrigues, regional director at Sepura. ‘Sepura GPS will be invaluable in assisting the fight against crime. It will give police added protection, and it can assist in operational activities, such as the pursuit of criminals or in criminal investigation exercises.’
Monitoring the tetra covert radio market
In February 2012, IMS Research measured the size of the TETRA covert market for the first time and confirmed that it offers significant growth opportunities for the TETRA community.
Thomas Lynch, mobile radio market analyst at IMS Research, says: ‘TETRA covert radios have been supplied by manufacturers for years, but they’ve not really marketed them until the last few years.’
IMS’s report states that in recent years, the PMR market has seen an increase of specialised TETRA users including covert and ATEX radios. The research confirmed that approximately 2% of all TETRA users are now using covert devices. This was further confirmed through a recent survey of over 260 PMR/LMR agencies, where respondents indicated that 2% of all PMR users were using covert devices.
This is significant for TETRA vendors as covert devices offer specialised features that add new customers, in surveillance and undercover operations, to the existing TETRA installed base, IMS believes.
The major players in the TETRA covert market include Motorola, Sepura and Thales. However, IMS Research forecasts more devices being announced over the coming months. In fact, covert devices are not just limited to TETRA – Hytera launched its X1 DMR Covert device last year and was displaying a TETRA covert radio at British APCO 2012 in April. There are also P25 devices used in North America for covert operations.
Lynch says: ‘The covert market presents a unique opportunity for vendor manufacturers to gain increased margins by providing solutions in features and hardware that allow specialist operators the confidence to carry out their operations successfully.’