The hype over the last few years around 4G LTE broadband technology has led some to argue that it will replace traditional two-way professional mobile radio (PMR) systems.
As is usually the case, the reality is rather more nuanced and with the air clearing somewhat over the strengths and weaknesses of 4G broadband, a more mature view is emerging.
‘In the radio community some people get scared or feel threatened by the advent of broadband technology, but I think the communications industry has evolved a new way of thinking,’ says Ola Gwozdz, Head of Innovation and Business Development at Chepstow-based PMR Products in the UK.
‘It used to be either PMR or cellular,’ she continues, ‘but we are now seeing the emergence of a more integrated communications future. The reality is that as a customer you do not have to choose one technology or the other. You can have it all, and in a very robust way, linking up radios, smartphones, tablets, PBX telephony systems, Wi-Fi and short–range technologies such as Bluetooth and Zigbee.’
Gwozdz argues that we are now living in a more complex communications world juggling multiple devices and platforms. The point is, she says, we need to be able to talk to all of them and beyond that we increasingly need to find ways to tie into the fast emerging world of the Internet of Things (IoT).
What PMR Products and other more forward thinking PMR vendors, system integrators, distributors and resellers are trying to do is move away from being associated with just one type of technology.
‘We should not fixate on the device,’ admonishes Gwozdz. ‘Instead, we need to step back and realize it is about the solution. We also need to realize there is room for everything and we need to embrace that in a logical way which benefits everyone.’
While this might sound like a pretty radical change in direction for ‘traditional’ PMR providers, it is really only the latest evolutionary step for PMR Products and its key solution – SafetyNet, a single software platform designed to interact with multiple radio standards and devices.
Steve Clarke, managing director, says: ‘Our SafetyNet platform is our core product and this has been developed over 20 years, adapting to new technology as it becomes available. The core ideas remain the same: flexible, modular and an integrated package, which provides a range of tools that can be adapted to meet very specific applications.’
The earliest form of SafetyNet began 20 years ago in the custodial realm when the UK Prison Service asked the company to develop a software solution to help protect personnel.
‘From the very beginning it was a tall order because it had to be a very robust, mission critical solution. So, whatever we built on the hardware electronic side for the alarm units through to the software and control room scenario solution, we had to ensure it was robust on all levels,’ says Gwozdz.
Rather ironically, the solution was so robust PMR Products almost did themselves out of business. ‘It just wouldn’t break!’ laughs Gwozdz. ‘Some units have been out there for 15 years and we are only now servicing and refreshing them. But it reinforces the point that everything we do is underpinned by its robustness and mission critical nature.’
It is worth stressing that this is precisely why two-way radio solutions and applications are still so relevant despite the emergence of newer communications technologies. Radio solutions can be tailored to provide coverage exactly where it is needed with the necessary capacity – and they are secure and above all resilient.
4G LTE broadband can do many things, but coverage and capacity are only available where the mobile network operators choose to provide it – and they are certainly not anywhere near providing mission critical levels of resilience. But, returning to the earlier point, this isn’t to say a customer cannot have both.
PMR Products initially provided voice and basic text messaging services, but the next step was to add location services. ‘The customers wanted to know where the person with the radio was if he or she hit the panic button,’ says Gwozdz. ‘This is where our Zigbee location chips came into play, which we inserted into the radios to provide one of the first indoor location systems.’
The location solutions were developed for outdoor using GPS, while indoor solutions used the microchips inside the radios to talk to beacons strategically placed inside the building. The beacons talk to the chips and the location data is sent via the radio frequencies to the control room.
‘We provided a hybrid of everything depending on what the user wanted,’ says Gwozdz. The latest development is a standalone system which works regardless of whether radios are being used or not – personnel may have wearable tags instead, for example.
The beacons in PMR’s latest designs can be deployed as a mesh network and this is used to send data to a control room or central server. So, no radios are needed, but the customer has a self-healing network with Zigbee the predominant carrier technology.
‘This is the new exciting area we are quite naturally moving into embracing the whole radio ecosystem,’ explains Gwozdz. ‘The solution can talk to all kinds of radio technologies and make use of the particular strengths each has, be it Zigbee, TETRA, DMR, Wi-Fi, cellular or IoT. SafetyNet creates an integrated solution and that benefits our clients, as they can mix and match any communication technology they want.’
Take location services as an example. Over the years, this has moved from simply sending an alarm to the control room to sending the user’s location at the same time. The latest development is that clients do not just want to know if their personnel are in trouble, and where they are in trouble, but how they are as well.
This can apply to both the well-being of a person and an asset. Both interact with sensing technology that captures data on a person’s heart rate perhaps, or whether a machine is malfunctioning and sends the data output, mainly using BLE (although there are other ways) via radio or asset tags over the network to whoever needs to know about it.
The other additional change here is that of mobility. This information does not have to go only to a fixed control room anymore. It can instead be sent to a manager on the move, who might pick up the alert on a smartphone, tablet or laptop. The point being, managers are not confined to one type of technology or device. It can be delivered to the device of their choice.
This is where SafetyNet comes into play, as it gathers information logically, sorts it out, and sends it to the right person or database in real time. One of the solution’s main virtues is its flexibility, which means it can be easily adapted to suit an individual client’s needs.
Gwozdz says: ‘We configure the system to be bespoke to the business; it is not an off-the-shelf, take it or leave it solution. SafetyNet has space for clients to create their own rules for things like dynamic groups and calling, or the ability to assign and reassign dynamic buttons on the fly to deal with something that is critical at a particular time to meet changing conditions.
‘Our SafetyNet Smart App (due out in Q1 2017) links seamlessly into the mobile telephone space and provides one big integrated solution that hopefully answers all the demands of the modern world,’ says Gwozdz, who points out that as a company everything is developed in-house, including all the software coding.
PMR Products is also focusing on retail, healthcare and industrial among other sectors. The latter looks particularly appealing given the immense capacity for automation and monitoring of machinery and assets. In fact, the company has a new product for automation up its sleeve
It is a works order product, which loads up all the tasks assigned to a person for a week. This is then combined with locator services, so when the person walks into the area where work needs doing, or a machine that needs servicing, they automatically get a list of the jobs that have to be undertaken. The solution lists all the tasks and logs fulfillment of the actions carried out into the works system.
Another area PMR Products is looking at is personal protection for both students and faculty staff in universities using wearable tags with ‘where are you’ and ‘how are you’ functions. ‘They don’t want to carry a radio, so the tags are a much more economical solution,’ says Gwozdz.
‘The tag talks to SafetyNet, but also to the radios being carried by security guards. If someone hits the alarm, it will therefore also send a message automatically to the nearest security guard. You don’t have to choose between radio or tags and both can be linked up and integrated. This is the kind of converged communications application we are working on,’ says Gwozdz.
It is also a good illustration of how the particular qualities and characteristics of digital PMR technology can be harnessed and integrated with other types of technology to provide enhanced solutions, proving the continued relevance of professional mobile radio based systems and applications.