Wireless on Fire

By Adam Stone

January 14, 2004

A military contractor stepped in with a Wi-Fi solution that helped California fire-fighters track and take down the major forest blaze of 2003.

With thousands of acres of California engulfed in flames in late October 2003, helicopter pilots were doing all they could, taking detailed readings of the fire's position in the hope of guiding firefighters in their efforts.

Trouble was, the readings had to be recorded on disc and then delivered by hand to stations on the ground, where the data could be fed into sophisticated mapping applications. That procedure could take as much as four hours -- until Harris Corporation came on the scene, with a Wi-Fi implementation that cut down the transfer time to as little as 18 minutes.

"When you have these tools, which you can consider to be off-the-shelf tools, it is very, very versatile," says Marketing Manager Kurt T. Kyvik.

Harris Corp. is primarily a military contractor, and its chief involvement with the wild fires was through the use of the advanced mapping programs that allowed firefighters to track the fire lines. The Navy uses that high-security product, which in turn requires a high-security Wi-Fi interface. But except for the security protocols, the Wi-Fi piece of the puzzle was standard-issue stuff.

Of course, it had to be attached to a helicopter, which is no small trick. "A helicopter is not alike a car, where you just strap something onto the roof and drive away. There is a lot of noise, there is a lot of vibration," said Kyvik. Engineers ultimately decided to bolt an antenna to one of the helicopter's struts, after having gained FCC approval to do so.

Analysts say this kind of in-the-field use could be representative of the next wave of Wi-Fi implementations: That is, Wi-Fi as an ad hoc networking tool.

Up to now, the vast majority of Wi-Fi implementations have been static, with hotspots fixed into certain positions. This makes sense, since "the major people who are deploying Wi-Fi today either are trying to run a business over it, as in enterprise users, or trying to make money off of it," said Chris Kozup, a program director at research firm META Group.

In the case of both enterprise setups and revenue-generating models, "what you want is stability and predictability," he said. "But there clearly are these more vertical markets where this kind of ad hoc networking could be very valuable."

He pointed for example to the cruise ship industry, where there has been talk of using Wi-Fi as a means to expedite passenger check-in during port calls. The cruise ship operators would in effect establish ad hoc Wi-Fi networks on the docks, check in passengers, and then take down those networks and move them along to the next stop.

The Harris Corp.'s successful implementation in California also resembles to some extent the notion of "mesh" networking. In a true mesh network, communication points are interconnected, sharing information along diverse paths. That's not the case here. But a mesh network also is distinguished by its ad hoc nature: Communication points can come and go, establishing connections on the fly as needed. In this respect, analysts say, Harris Corp.'s ability to rapidly deploy its Wi-Fi solution could give a taste of what mesh networking will deliver in the future.

Kyvik envisions this capability being especially useful in emergency situations. "It changes the dynamics of the way that people communicate," he said. Take for instance the hypothetical models of a group of emergency workers in a crisis situation, or soldiers deployed on the battlefield. "On the phone or the radio I can't see what you are showing me, but if I can look at the same data that you are seeing on your computer or your PDA, then I can react accordingly. I can have the data to make informed decisions about situations that I did not have before."

It may take some finagling, however.

In the California fire situation, the Wi-Fi antenna was able to send an amplified signal as far as 15 miles, but only after the helicopters got up and over the mountains, sometimes climbing to as high as 4,000 feet in order to overcome geographic barriers.

"They definitely had to work with the terrain," said Kyvik. "You would try to send the information, and if the data didn't get there you would just have to go up another 1,500 feet and try it again."



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