Today we are excited to announce the start of our own podcast. This is our first episode, and we believe it has some very useful information. We’ve spoken about vehicle area networks before, but today we’re going to explore them on a deeper level.
In this podcast we interview Dave Slaten, Senior Design Engineer, and Geoff Peck, Chief Technical Architect. Both of them are leading the way with innovative thinking about unifying your critical communications. They have a thorough understanding of vehicle area networks and during the podcast they offer the following:
- Define what a vehicle area network is in “non-technical” terms
- Discuss what market drivers have led to the need for vehicle area networks
- Give examples of how vehicle area networks can benefit Utility and Public Safety organizations
- Explain why you should never look for one device that does everything
We hope you enjoyed the podcast. If you have questions or ideas for future podcasts, please leave a comment below and we will definitely respond. If you would like to learn more about vehicle area networks, check out Dave Slaten’s article on Vehicle Area Networks in Connection magazine.
Evan Forester: Hello everyone and welcome to the first podcast from Tait Communications. I’m here with Dave Slaten, who is a senior design engineer at Tait, and Geoff Peck, our chief technical architect, and today we’re going to be talking about Vehicle Area Networks. So let’s get started.
Guys, we’ve heard a lot about Vehicle Area Networks. Could you explain just what a Vehicle Area Network actually is, in non-technical terms?
Dave Slaten: I think… I don’t know if I can go completely non-technical terms, but I’ll do the best that I can. If we take kind of a simple analogy and think about the Wi-Fi to cellular hotspots that you can buy from your general commercial carriers like Vodafone or Telstra or somebody like that, or your home Wi-Fi router. These are kind of one to one connections, which give you a Wi-Fi bubble that allows you to connect some way to get you back to the cloud, the Internet, in some way or another. So it’s kind of a data connection that you’re not tethered to.
If we apply this to the mission critical space, because that’s Tait’s job, to work in the mission critical space, we have kind of tried to put this idea on steroids. So a Vehicle Area Network is something that will take more than one backhaul access. So instead of just a 3G or the wired connection from your home, we’re looking to put commercial 3G, plus private or commercial LTE connectivity into it, potentially adding satellite, but, most importantly, adding our traditional land mobile radio connectivity, which is what we do best.
From the other side, the user should have more than one way, we think, to connect to this hotspot. That could be through Wi-Fi, which is the most traditional manner, but maybe also Bluetooth, a wired ethernet connection, potentially the CAN bus in a vehicle, USB, or even cross-banding some of our radio technology. Basically, because it’s in a vehicle, the car could do most of the heavy lifting, which means that we could have more power to it, more power allows us to have better transmitters, which gives us more range, better receivers, which gives us better sensitivity, and, basically, it all just extends the range.
So a Vehicle Area Network is, more or less, kind of your 3G to Wi-Fi hotspot from a commercial vendor, but on steroids, which means you have extended range, more power, and a heck of a lot more connectivity, in a mobile environment that helps the people who are the front-line users.
Evan Forester: Yeah, thanks Dave. That makes sense. Geoff, do you have anything to add to that?
Geoff Peck: No I thought that was a really good explanation. I thought, for my benefit, the way I like to think of it is, a Vehicle Area Network gives you like an umbrella of coverage, there’s this mobile bubble almost, almost like a soap bubble, I guess, that travels around with a vehicle. It gives you this connectivity, it provides a special environment for your connectivity as the vehicle travels around, or as you exit a vehicle and move into a building, or move in the near vicinity of a vehicle.
Evan Forester: Okay, great. So what are the market drivers for Vehicle Area Networks? Why are we suddenly hearing about them now?
Geoff Peck: Well I think that if we just take that umbrella analogy a bit more… I mean, basically, if you think of it as providing the capability to give you a tether. So we just heard Dave explain that the vehicle’s got the ability to do the heavy lifting on a communications link. In other words, it’s got the power, it’s got the antennas, it’s got all this capability there that you don’t really want to have in your pocket. On the other hand, you want to use the kind of equipment that you can carry on your person.
And so, we’re starting to hear about it because of this, the inter-connectedness of everything. We all start hearing about the Internet of everything, the Internet of things. As these scenarios start to unfold, it means that people start to get the requirement for a lot more connectivity than they used to. So it’s not just about voice anymore, it’s about data as well.
So for instance, you might have sensors, not just on your wrist, but you might have cameras that you might want to deploy around an incident. All of these things have to somehow be backhauled into the, sort of the main communications system, but also to your colleagues, who may be within this bubble of communication. That’s basically the concept and that’s really why we’re starting to hear about them now.
Evan Forester: Okay. So all these issues coming forward, how does a Vehicle Area Network provide some benefits and help along the way?
Geoff Peck: Yes, well I think that the main benefit is this enabling communications. It means that, as a user, you can just concentrate on the incident at hand. You don’t have to think about, “Have I got connectivity? Am I out of cell phone range? Is my radio going to work in this building?” All of these things can be removed from the cares and you can basically just focus on the incident at hand.
Because usually, let’s face it, these incidents, there’s more to worry about there than worrying about your connectivity. Basically it’s providing you this bubble, this umbrella of connectivity that lets you focus entirely on an incident. Now it may not just be for an emergency, it could just be for business-as-usual kind of applications, just this sort of normal day-to-day stuff, it doesn’t have to be for an emergency. But it allows you to move away from the small bubble of a vehicle and move to the slightly wider bubble of connectivity that’s around the vehicle.
Evan Forester: Alright, so let’s… maybe we can think of an example. Suppose you’re a police officer or a utility worker, and you’re in an area that doesn’t have great cellular coverage, would a Vehicle Area Network allow you to use your cell phone to make contact?
Dave Slaten: Potentially I think that that is absolutely the direction that we’re headed. That’s the exact kind of, I guess, simplified user interface, so they have one tool that they use for the job at all times. I think they’re… I’m not an expert on LTE, but I do know that there’s range extension and repeat items coming into the standard, which mean that if we build that into the Vehicle Area Network paradigm, and actually include that, that someone could take an LTE-capable cell phone that has no chance of reaching the commercial infrastructure that exists from the normal providers, but because the vehicle has the increased power transmitters and the better receivers, it allows them to use that device in the area of their vehicle, and the vehicle will do the heavy lifting to route it all the way back to the commercial infrastructure.
So they’ve got the same tool that they’re used to using, and the vehicle is just saying, “Yep. Okay, I got your back here, I’ll deliver it back to the commercial infrastructure.” And there you go.
Geoff Peck: And I think it also provides us with the opportunity to add some intelligence to that picture. As Dave said, the standards that are coming up are starting to allow things like LTE relay mode. But these are about connectivity, and really I think the focus is going to be on what you’re doing with this connectivity as opposed to the raw pipes that can be put in place, so I guess we’re also looking for these Vehicle Area Networks to add intelligence.
So, for example, not only do you not need to worry about which bearer you’re going to actually be transmitting your data back to base on, or even to your colleagues. The network itself can shape the way the traffic behaves, so that it’s appropriate for the kind of bearer. So, for instance, if you don’t have cellular coverage, but you’ve got this incredibly wide area, mission-critical, land mobile radio system in place, then it may be appropriate to start putting traffic over that. But you’re going to need to shape that traffic to make sure it can fit over those kind of pipes, and I think the Vehicle Area Network is the place where we can add intelligence that benefits the end-user enormously.
Evan Forester: Okay. So, with all these new forms of communication like LTE, Bluetooth, satellite, cellular, a lot of people are kind of asking for one device that can do everything. Is that really possible, do you guys think?
Dave Slaten: Technically, anything is possible, Evan, but the question kind of boils down to, is that what you really want? I think if we look back at one of the other drivers for why we’re hearing about Vehicle Area Networks now, it kind of comes back to people’s expectations. At home, everybody has an iPhone, they’ve got laptops, they’ve got stuff that they’re used to using that’s being evolved at a very, very rapid rate in the commercial world.
Now in the mission critical space, we put a lot more ruggedness and a lot more durability into our designs, and when they’re purchased, they’re generally purchased not on an 18-month cycle, which is kind of the commercial throwaway idea, but on a seven to ten year cycle. So if we build all of this current today technology that will do everything into a device then that means they’re stuck with that technology for seven years. But their personal expectations are that things are going to change drastically within seven months, let alone seven years.
So, we can give somebody a do-everything device, but what we’re trying to do with the Vehicle Area Network is actually leverage a modular approach to things, so that they can bring the right tool to the job, whether it’s a cell phone, or a simple, cross-banded portable radio, or something that we haven’t even dreamed of yet. We can deal with the modern connectivity methods to get it into a central location, and then deal with the, perhaps not even currently known, backhaul methods to get it out.
So by simply replacing the big box or, more importantly, even small modules in the same big box in a vehicle, where all the heavy lifting is done, then people can bring to the table the tools that they’re used to using that they’ve evolved from their own commercial expectations.
Evan Forester: Alright. Would you agree, Geoff?
Geoff Peck: Yeah definitely, and, in fact, I’d like to emphasize one of the points that Dave has made really well, which is, I think it’s, for me, it’s about avoiding compromise. I think people may have seen the Tait Tough video, which really shows the benefit of using a device that’s fit for purpose. No cell phone would survive even one of the very simple tests that’s shown on the Tait Tough video. Yet, mobile devices for the mission critical space are designed for this kind of punishment, and so I think it depends on what your need is. If your need is to take documents, fill in documents, then clearly a tablet or something like that’s going to be what you want, and you should just be able to buy the best that’s fit for purpose, that suits your budget, that suits your needs.
You shouldn’t have to compromise, and I think our approach is, rather than rush to build an uber device, which, as Dave said, I’m sure is easy to build, it may not actually fit people’s needs very well. We’d rather provide the environment that means they have the choice, and don’t have to compromise what their requirements are in order to fit it into just whatever we happen to produce.
Evan Forester: Right. So the Vehicle Area Network really gives people the choice to use whatever device they think is right for the situation and still connect with who they need to connect.
Dave Slaten: Yeah I think absolutely that flexibility is really the key point. Because we can deliver a technology platform, but us giving technology isn’t going to change their operational requirements, so we need to meet their needs instead of expecting them to conform to what it is that we think we can deliver.
Evan Forester: I do kind of have a hard time visualizing a tablet radio that you make cell phone calls on, that would just be pretty ridiculous to carry around. So technology continues to become more complex. How does a Vehicle Area Network actually simplify the user experience?
Dave Slaten: That’s a pretty simple answer in the context that, I think, Geoff’s really hit on all the high points already. If the user experience is consistent, then it’s simplified. If somebody can bring the right tool to the job that they can use every time, in the same way, no matter what their level of coverage or backhaul accessibility is, then they can work very efficiently.
So if they can bring in their smart device, to use current terminology, they show up with an iPhone or an Android device that has the right forms to fill out, or has access to the right information, and the database on the backend, and they can always retrieve it, whether it’s a slow feed through an LMR device because we’re way out of coverage range, or whether the Vehicle Area Network has translated their request into an LTE relay send, then they have the same tool, they don’t need any technology expertise, it’s just efficient use of one device that is fit for purpose.
Evan Forester: Sure. Anything else, Geoff?
Geoff Peck: Yeah, I think we could probably use some examples that maybe illustrate the value. You know, you could use two extreme examples. For instance, imagine a major disaster, for instance, a big, urban earthquake. As a result of that, cellular coverage goes out. It doesn’t mean the cellular system’s unreliable, it just means that it’s not designed for that purpose. But obviously this is an instant that people are going to have to respond to and respond fast. They can’t be worrying about what sort of device they should pick up to use for connectivity when they’re in the middle of something like that. They really just have to continue using the devices that they’re comfortable with. Which I think is the point that Dave’s making.
And also, I think there’s the other end of the spectrum, the other example is just simply saving commute time. I mean, we’ve all been at the wrong end of a commute, imagine coming off of a shift, and your tablet’s full of all the forms that you’ve filled in, the citations you’ve written out, simply the reports that you’ve had to write, and now you’re facing a one-and-a-half-hour, two-hour commute through rush-hour traffic, back to the station, back to base to download all these forms. Well, that’s a major pain, and you can increase the productivity of an agency very simply just by allowing those forms to be downloaded through the Vehicle Area Network. The commute is no longer an issue. And I think that’s one of the benefits. It’s providing benefits at all ends of that kind of spectrum of example.
Evan Forester: Right. So it’s not just helpful during the rare, massive events, but even just day-to-day business can help your people become more efficient.
Dave Slaten: Yeah absolutely. I think those operational costs, if you take a really good look at how much time you can save, even if you save, you know, Geoff’s said, a one- or a two-hour commute, but we all don’t necessarily live in Chicago or Los Angeles or Auckland or somewhere like that. But even 15 minutes a day of an officer being on point, on task, instead of dinking around with the administrative aspects of downloading this technology, that adds up really fast, and becomes extremely valuable in the context of how much the company can do, or whoever the front-line industry is, to serve the customers’ needs that they have. Protect the public, keep the utilities running correctly, it’s an incredibly valuable piece of the equation.
Geoff Peck: I think another aspect of looking at the value is that a Vehicle Area Network, I see it as a platform. In other words, it’s a platform onto which we can create future value. Or, to use the non-MBA-speak way of saying it, you could say we’re future-proofing the situation. In other words, we’re providing a platform of communications that allows an agency, it allows a group of users to develop as their technology needs change and morph over time, then the platform allows those things to happen independently of the way the communications technology evolves.
And so, you’re basically allowing a much simpler evolutionary path for people. You’re simplifying that process and, for all the reasons that we’ve explained, you’re saving time, and saving time saves money. So I think this platform approaches a valuable, extra addition. It’s not simply saving money directly as of today, but it’s actually putting money in your pocket in the future because it’s allowing you to make decisions that don’t have to be influenced by the connectivity.
Dave Slaten: Yeah I don’t know that we really, really hit that part of the heavy lifting that a Vehicle Area Network can contribute, which is… We talked about the mini-bearers going back to the office or the number of ways the user can connect, but I think the platform that Geoff is referring to, if I was to put it into more succinct terms, is actually the processing power that exists inside of the box that allows us to do the routing, that allows us to create an environment where third-parties can develop their own operational software that does what they need it to do.
So they’re not necessarily reliant on Tait to have dreamed up what it is that they’re going to want to accomplish in the future. We’ve given them, more or less, a sandbox that they’re in full control of, that they can say, “Oh wow. Next month we need to be able to accomplish this, so let’s get some guys in, write some code and boom! It does it for us.”
Evan Forester: Okay. Well very, very cool guys. Thank you so much for joining us today and sharing more about Vehicle Area Networks. If you listeners want to learn more about Vehicle Area Networks, there’s a great article in Connection Magazine you should check out at taitconnection.com, and if you enjoyed this podcast I’d encourage you to subscribe to our blog (sign-up box can be found in the sidebar to the right) as we’re planning on releasing a few more over the next year. So thanks so much for listening. Dave, Geoff, thank you for joining us. Have a good day.