Ruggedized laptop computers are now common in police, fire and EMS vehicles. To cope with the rough-and-tumble environment in which these devices are being used — “I've never met a police commander who expected his officers to be gentle with their laptops,” said Gary Beckman, national account manager for public safety with Rugged Notebooks — manufacturers have gone to great lengths to make these units extremely tough.

But toughness is just a starting point for public-safety users. They have a lot to do when on the road, from checking warrants and license plate numbers to identifying hazmat dangers at fire scenes and filing medical reports to receiving hospitals. As a result, rugged laptop manufacturers must ensure that their products keep up with public-safety demands, while remaining close enough to mainstream computing to be affordable and practical to build.

Initially, in-vehicle laptops were an enhanced replacement for mobile data terminals (MDTs), the text-only dedicated terminals that allowed police to make simple database queries from the driver's seat. Today, much has changed: Besides writing reports, searching maps via wireless connections or even conducting real-time video conferences, first responders are using their rugged laptops as mobile, Web-connected servers. Touchscreen functionality also is favored, because it allows users to move quickly through jobs with a few on-screen finger taps.

While their highest profile is in police cars, rugged laptops also are being used by other public-safety sectors. For instance, “the EMS market has a clear need for ultra-rugged devices that support WWAN and WLAN capability, for real-time [electronic patient-care reporting] connectivity, and with additional rugged monitors for multiple-application access inside a vehicle on the move,” said Bryan Elmore, product marketing manager with DRS Technologies. His company's ARMOR X10gx is a rugged tablet PC that is UL-approved for use in explosive and hazardous environments, which makes it a natural choice for EMS and fire departments.

Meanwhile, Rugged Notebooks has sold numerous rugged laptops to fire departments. They use them to identify hazmat threats in real-time, as their trucks race to industrial fire scenes.

“There was recently a big fire in Los Angeles, where officers using our laptops were able to locate dangerous materials before they got into the building,” Beckman said. “This enhanced their safety, and sped up the suppression of the fire.”

Rugged laptops are increasingly being used in combination with external devices, to provide first responders with enhanced functionality. “There are all kinds of peripherals being connected to our Toughbook 31s,” said Joe Martin, national sales manager with Panasonic Solutions. “Police are attaching barcode and magstripe readers to check drivers' licenses, video cameras for documenting what is happening, and Bluetooth connections from laptops to electronic citation printers.”

“We support a variety of devices via a wireless Bluetooth connection or via a USB connection directly to our rugged tablets,” said Mark Holleran, president and chief operating officer of Xplore Technologies. “Our tablets allow the user to hold the rugged tablet in one hand and an air tester or another device in the other. In situations like a terrorist attack, this is extremely important for the specialized SWAT teams. This allows them to look at the tablet's wireless connection to surveillance cameras and draw their guns in case of a sudden threat.”

Dwayne Lum is one of Xplore's product designers. In creating the company's rugged tablets, he asked public safety what they were looking for — and they told him.

Today, public-safety users expect “extremely rugged units that withstand a straight drop to concrete from over 4 feet and continue to operate,” Lum said. These rugged units also should be able to survive being dunked in a puddle or stream, plus offer specialized docks that enable them to fit in various first responders' vehicles that allow “quick-release, grab-and go with their operations still working,” Lum said.

Public-safety users also want devices that meet their unique working situations.

“We have customized various vehicles' docks and their installation to reduce user fatigue, improve single- and dual-operator ergonomics, and handle high crash-shock loads during the event of a vehicular collision,” Holleran said. “Over the years we have added features to the product to better support specific first-responder needs — such as integrated mobile data radios (from CDPD to current 3G radios), on-board fingerprint sensors, highly accurate GPS for AVL and navigation, and external antenna connections to boost the wireless signals to the internal radios.”

At Dell, the goal has been to create tougher-than-tough rugged laptops. “We have encased these computers using our Ballistic Armor Protection System that meets or exceeds real world and military standards such as MIL-STD-810F,” said Rick Perez, Dell's Latitude product marketing manager. “Meanwhile, our PrimoSeal technology — which allows users to seal off open ports to protect against dust and water — has the highest combined level of ingress-protection rating (IP65) of any notebook in its class.”

Flexibility of use also is a key public-safety requirement. “We have designed our rugged laptops to support the range of applications and peripherals being used by public safety,” Perez said. Panasonic is taking the same approach, plus putting an emphasis on backward compatibility with earlier Toughbook generations. “We are on our sixth generation of Toughbooks, and have found that our clients like to be able to mix-and-match the latest models with earlier generations, peripherals and in-car mounts,” Martin said. “So we are very careful to ensure that the new systems are indeed backwards compatible, both electronically and physically.”

First responders also are looking to save time and money. So Rugged Notebooks' laptops are designed to aid the writing of reports and tickets, to lower day-to-day costs and free up officers for other duties.

“We have tried to make our rugged laptops and tablets comfortable to use in vehicles, so that officers can get their work done quickly,” Beckman said. “This, combined with features found in cutting-edge business models, allows them to have their office on the road with them.”

Finally, there is the issue of security. First responders need to know that their networks and databases won't be compromised should one of their laptops be stolen. This is why password protection is no longer enough, Beckman said. This is why the Rugged Notebooks' RNB Eagle comes with a biometric fingerprint scanner.

Across the board, rugged laptop manufacturers are trying to pack more performance into smaller, yet tougher cases. They also want to extend battery life and operating parameters; in short, they want to make rugged laptops do more than ever before.

At the same time, these manufacturers are trying to develop public safety-specific features. For instance, Dell wants to develop a low-light “stealth” mode for its rugged laptops, so that they can be used within a darkened police car without leaking light outside.

“We want to reduce the number of [candelas per square meter, a measure of luminance] emitted by our displays, such that officers within the car can still see them, but no one else can,” Perez said. “Such stealth performance would be a real boon for first responders, because it would allow them to stay online while keeping their presence unseen.”

Xplore Technologies already has developed a version of stealth mode for its rugged laptops. “One of our new elements is ‘lights mode,’ which puts the system into a low-emissions state, making it harder to detect with scanning devices,” Lum said. “It also mutes all sounds and turns off all lights, while still allowing the system to perform tasks at the user's request.”

Another area that Dell is working on is resistance-based touchscreens, rather than the current capacitance model. Right now, people wearing gloves can't use capacitance screens, because their gloves electrically insulate them from the device, thus defeating the capacitance-transfer process. “With a resistance-based touchscreen, gloves won't be an issue,” Perez said. “It will all be a matter of finger pressure.”

Clearly, tomorrow's rugged laptops will offer tangible improvements, in size, performance and toughness. Unfortunately for the manufacturers, their clients will likely react by asking for yet more of the same — and at an even better price.

James Careless is a freelance writer.