Urban OpEx: New York City is a test bed for first responder technology

For the National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL) of the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate, working in Manhattan is business as usual. As the official Department of Homeland Security laboratory for testing and evaluating current and emerging first responder technologies, NUSTL thrives amidst the hustle and bustle of America’s largest city and has established deep roots with agencies of intervention by the greater metropolitan community. What’s more unusual (and exciting) is that the city has recently become the main attraction, serving as a key driver for tech demos held at various venues across New York’s boroughs.

Over the course of a week in late July, NUSTL and S&T personnel collaborated with multiple federal, state, and local agencies for the 2022 Urban Operational Experiment (OpEx), which also brought together technology developers and first responders to participate in demonstrations and evaluations.

Urban OpEx put seven new and emerging technologies in the hands of first responders so they can explore the features, functions, and capabilities of each, then give end-user feedback to the developers behind these tools. As NUSTL data collectors captured this feedback for upcoming reports, developers listened and asked their own questions, knowing that stakeholder observations and suggestions could help them improve their technologies and produce more devices. ready for the field.

The week’s experiments provided multiple opportunities for speakers to gain hands-on experience with new technologies. Developers benefit from OpEx by gaining valuable insights from their end users.

The photos in this article provide an overview of the variety of city locations that provided realistic urban settings for the OpEx demonstrations. More importantly, these snapshots capture the rare but crucial moments when stakeholder know-how and technology solutions collide. These are snapshots of the S&T mission brought to life, glimpses into the future of stakeholder-relevant technologies, ready to fill high-priority capability gaps.

Stakeholders examine the Skydio X2 Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) drone and user interface. A demonstration at Fort Totten included the Skydio three-dimensional scanning skill, which allows the UAS to capture visual images of a disaster scene with no prior maps or GPS required.

The week’s array of technologies included unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), deployable robotics, wearable sensors, AI-enabled gun detection, incident management platforms and situational awareness and deployable communications. The OpEx planning team selected participating technologies by validating them against specific criteria, including that each belonged to at least one priority area identified for S&T by the first responders themselves.

“Operational environments and emergency response capability requirements are constantly changing, which makes innovation so important,” noted Kathryn Coulter Mitchell, senior civil servant serving as Under Secretary for Science and Technology . “Urban OpEx paves the way for innovation because we put technology developers and first responders in the same room to understand what they need from each other.”

Urban OpEx ventured beneath city streets, using a subway tunnel as a demonstration site for the Vision 60 Q-UGV robot (developed by Ghost Robotics). The robot has technological capabilities for navigating through tunnels and caves, among others, which allow responders to perform critical work from a safe distance.
A ZeroEyes technology developer trains a law enforcement officer to verify a gun detection alert from its DeepZero platform, an AI computer vision technology for proactive identification threats.
The NYPD Academy Cityscape Room provided a controlled environment to demonstrate and evaluate DeepZero’s ability to scan a real-time video stream and detect a drawn firearm.

“Events like Urban OpEx take away the focus on marketing or selling the technology and put the focus back on what it is, what it does and how it works in a realistic setting,” proposed the director of the NUSTL laboratory, Alice Hong. Industry participants from Ghost Robotics, Parsons Corporation, Pendar Technologies, Persistent, Skydio, Inc., TDCOMM and ZeroEyes participated under cooperative research and development agreements with S&T.

Situational awareness tools improve disaster and emergency preparedness and response by providing a common operating picture, integrating information from disparate sources. VIZSAFE Geoaware Network showcased its low-infrastructure, rapid-deployment solution during Day 4 of OpEx.

Urban OpEx operated various locations, holding simulations at the New York City Fire Department’s training academies at Fort Totten and Randall’s Island, the New York City Police Department’s police academy, the New York City Emergency Management Headquarters and NUSTL. Operating environments for the technologies on display ranged from a cramped subway tunnel to a rooftop in lower Manhattan.

The data collectors accompany the facilitators-evaluators to collect their comments. Here, a speaker examines the Centaur Network, a rapid-deployment LTE network from TDCOMM.
An evaluator (left foreground, in red) calls a NUSTL technologist (navy polo shirt right) about TDCOMM’s “network in a box” solution designed to support emergency response.

“How new technologies could affect [first responders’] operations, if they add value or create distractions, can be a challenge,” said Bhargav Patel, Senior Technologist at NUSTL. “Urban OpEx is an attempt to address this challenge by creating contextualized structured experiences around realistic scenarios.”

These realistic scenarios included post-disaster search and rescue and damage assessment; a response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive threat; active shooter detection and response; an incoming hurricane; communicate in remote and degraded environments; and emergency response without GPS.

The autonomous mobile network Wave Relay MANET System (by Persistent) can bridge analog networks, providing a solution to interoperability between disparate organizations. The system was deployed from NUSTL’s rooftop test space for responders to evaluate.

More than 150 participants attended the event from public safety agencies across the country. Their feedback will not only allow technology vendors to improve their designs, but will also be made available to the national first responder community through NUSTL publications.

After using the Wave Relay MANET system in an operational scenario, stakeholders come together for a feedback session and debriefing with the technology developers. These open dialogues take place for each demonstrated technology and are held immediately after experimentation so that users’ impressions and questions are fresh.

Information and feedback gathered during Urban OpEx 2022 will be published in a series of technology reports on the S&T website. Federal, state, local, tribal and territorial first responders will be able to access the reports to inform their decision-making and guide future technology investments.

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