After decades of building its reputation by kitting out cops and firefighters with communications gear, Motorola Solutions has become increasingly aggressive in its push to reinvent the company to meet growing law enforcement demand for intelligence and data-gathering tools.
The future could include smartbelts that notify dispatchers anytime a cop pulls a gun from a holster; drones that allow emergency responders to quickly get a birds-eye view of a catastrophe; and real-time intelligence consoles that allow police departments to quickly aggregate data and predict where crime may occur the next day, according to executives at the company’s innovation center outside of Chicago.
Motorola received an endorsement toward its refined mission when the tech-specializing private equity firm Silver Lake announced this week that it will take a $1 billion stake in the company.
The investment by Silver Lake, one of its biggest in the firm’s 16-year history, comes as Motorola has made a series of moves in recent months — including forming partnerships with Skyscape Cloud Services and software company Wynyard, as well as acquiring crime analysis firm PublicEngines — as it tries to accelerate the transition.
During a recent tour of its innovation center in Schaumburg, Motorola executives showed USA TODAY some of the new gadgets it’s begun testing and that they hope to get into the marketplace soon.
But Motorola researchers think the wearable camera is just one component in how the “connected police officer” will soon be outfitted.
It’s betting that departments will want the cop of the future to wear a “smartbelt,” a tool that would relay a message to dispatch regarding an officer’s location within moments of the officer pulling a gun out of his or her holster, or detaching handcuffs or a Taserfrom the smartbelt.
The officer could also be wearing smart glasses, which would allow the officer to stay connected with dispatch and commanders. Each pair of glasses, which Motorola recently began field testing along with the belt, is fitted with a tiny camera that allows the officer to take a photo and quickly transmit the images to dispatchers.
The smart glasses would also automatically take a photo of what the officer is looking at when he or she pulls a gun or a sensitive item from the belt, and send it to back to police headquarters. Dispatchers can also send the officer text messages that would display on the lenses of the glasses, so that the officer can receive the information without looking away from the scene.
“Now the officer doesn’t have do all those individual manipulations, he doesn’t have to take his eyes from the scene,” said Randy Ekl, director of advanced systems technology. “It also brings intelligence back to other people (in the department), giving them more real-time information. It’s an improvement in terms of the safety of an officer and the understanding of a situation as a whole.”
Ekl said that during the early going of field testing, officers have suggested to Motorola engineers that they include an override button, because weapons and other sensitive equipment get pulled off cops’ belts frequently for innocuous reasons.
The concept of a tethered drone was particularly intriguing to Motorola officials. Because the drone uses a “microfilament tether,” allowing it to be powered through a generator or another power source on the ground, it can stay in the air indefinitely.
“We think it makes it much more useful for our first responders because … it can just go up and stay on station and provide valuable information,” said Bruce Mueller, Motorola Solutions’ director of wireless research. “
Mueller says the tethered drones could be a valuable tool for firefighters looking to survey a blaze or even for law enforcement officials trying to keep an eye on the flow of crowds at a large public gathering.
“When you have a large public event, a la a Lollapalooza … they’ll want to be able to say, ‘Where’s the crowd? Is everything normal?’” said Mueller.
Motorola hasn’t yet set a price for the tethered drone.
Motorola has already demonstrated its drone for some departments, and Mueller said he expects that a “small number” of departments could be flying the Motorola drones — assuming the Federal Aviation Administration approves required regulations — later this year.
In a demonstration of the technology, Motorola officials mocked up a scenario where a police department was quickly able to view private surveillance video of an armed robbery at a pawn shop, video of the suspect driving away in a white car, and footage from a publicly owned camera of a busy roadway that was used in the getaway.
In the fake robbery, software allowed police to quickly compress the video of the traffic down to minutes after the crime occurred and zero in on vehicles that were the same color and size as the getaway vehicle.
Motorola said it has sold the console — which is customized to a department’s needs — to a few agencies thus far.
In Elgin, Ill., which paid about $160,000 for the real-time intelligence console last year, police department officials said their console gets feeds from several city-owned cameras in public areas and one privately-owned camera belonging to a convenience store. The store owner gave police permission for access to the camera.
Cmdr. Ana Lalley of the Elgin Police said Elgin, a city of about 110,000 residents is still in the early stages of testing the potential of what the console can do for the department. But she said that her department has been quick to embrace technology — particularly utilizing video — to meet growing expectations from citizens.
“When there’s a major incident, people expect video, particularly after Boston and the ability they had there to solve a crime based on a camera,” said Lalley, referring to the surveillance video that helped investigators identify the assailants in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. “It’s almost the public’s expectation that video will be available, and that it’s a resource that police will use.”