A network in a box with GPS: Plum Case for challenging environments

October 6, 2016  - By

1-13_commandpost_exercise_lIf you are responding to a disaster that may have destroyed cell phone towers, and you have no power or otherwise limited connectivity, how will you work GIS data and imagery under these seemingly impossible conditions? Every map query, location shift, every zoom in/out requires a fresh query of the data from the server — precisely what you can no longer do. Now an inventor has come forward with a device that can provide phone or internet connectivity in environments that would be impossible for traditional equipment.

As a frame of reference for this disaster scenario, five years ago when I was still working for Pictometry, I participated in a large DHS disaster response exercise in New York City. This was a full blown NIMS exercise that included more than 250 local, state and federal participants at the command center with even more personnel in the field. The exercise simulated a massive oil spill between Staten Island and Bayonne and was a full mobilization of personnel and equipment including the Coast Guard and related commercial businesses just as if it was a real event.

The ad hoc command center was set up in a large ballroom of a Staten Island hotel and was organized and operated in accordance with “National Incident Management System” (NIMS) guidance. The Incident Command and Control Center was laid out as recommended by the Incident Command System (ICS). Standard NIMS procedures and communications were followed as the exercise ramped up with participants arriving at the hotel setting up their equipment. Most had cell phones, laptops and other communications devices.

containership-grounding-in-new-york-harbor-investigation-report-figure-2For my part I had a computer and large LCD projector to display GIS data and high resolution oblique imagery of the disaster location on a large screen for all participants to see. I was getting a lot of oohs and aahs as the measureable high resolution imagery hit the screen. For a while I was the center of attention as everyone became familiar with the visual details of the disaster site and surrounding locations. I was using a an online capability developed by Pictometry and Lockheed Martin called Intelligence On Demand (IOD). The system accessed Pictometry servers containing over 4 petabytes of measureable ortho and oblique imagery overlaid with multiple layers of GIS vector and raster data. The system was very robust and was able to help participants build a common operational picture of the unfolding scenario. But my glory was short-lived since IOD had an Achilles heel.

NEW YORK – U.S. Coast Guard is responding to fuel oil discharged from a barge in Kill Van Kull at Mariner’s Harbor, Staten Island N.Y., Dec. 15, 2012. The barge’s tank holds approximately 147,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil. Photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta H. Disco

NEW YORK – U.S. Coast Guard is responding to fuel oil discharged from a barge in Kill Van Kull at Mariner’s Harbor, Staten Island N.Y., Dec. 15, 2012. The barge’s tank holds approximately 147,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil. Photo: Petty Officer 2nd Class Jetta H. Disco

IOD relied on a continuous connection to the server. Every map query, location shift, every zoom in/out required a fresh query of the data from the server. This was no problem with a fast connection but as the number of participants grew the internet connection slowed to a crawl even with a T1 line serving the facility. With more than 250 participants all crowding the line, it was difficult to send even a simple email. I was dead in the water and learned a painful lesson.

A had a similar experience several years ago during the multiple tornado outbreaks in northeast Alabama. With power out for over a week we experienced our own isolation with no cable service, limited TV and spotty sporadic cell phone service. We had to charge our phones using our cars but had to be frugal with that since area gas pumps were also out of commission.

plum-caseI had numerous discussions with the Pictometry engineers asking if there was some way that at the start of an event, when we identify a disaster location, that we could cache the needed imagery of the location negating the need to keep hitting the server. Not sure if that’s been done yet.

The engineers kept referring to new methods in the works to provide connectivity in lean environments. I’ve seen some of them ranging from portable towers, overhead aircraft, satellites and even aerostats but most are not cheap or quickly available.   Two month ago at a geospatial technology showcase I saw a device that may provide the answer: the Plum Case.

I’m not a communications/internet expert so I’m relying on third party experiences and opinions that the Plum Case, developed by a retired communications CEO, seems to be a solution for many applications. It simply is a “network in a box” that can deliver cell phone service and fast internet connectivity in locations that may have weak or seemingly no service. It does that using an array of very sensitive antennas that nurse even the weakest signals and boost them to usable connectivity for the local users.

Below is a video clip of the Plum Case being demonstrated at the recent TechVet conference.

The inventor, Lee Williams, said he named it a Plum because Apple was taken. Simply put, the Plum Case is a network in a box with GPS. It can provide phone or internet connectivity in environments that would be impossible for traditional devices. It does that by jumping between four wireless services and choosing the best one or MU-MIMO (Multiple User – Multiple Inputs/Multiple Outputs).

It can provide phone or internet connectivity in environments that would be impossible for traditional devices.  It does that by using highly sensitive vertical polarity antennas spaced in a specific arrangement that far exceeds most antenna systems such as those found in smartphones, wireless cards or dongles.  As a result, this “hyper-sensitive” receiving system can extract connectivity when all other equipment indicates “no signal. Additionally, the very robust connections result in very high data transmission rates.

What this means is that if you are responding to a disaster that may have destroyed cell phone towers, no power or otherwise limited connectivity, the Plum Case will extract connectivity under seemingly impossible conditions. Contact the people at Plum Laboratories for additional information and current user experience and testimonies.

 

Art Kalinski

About the Author:

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.

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