ISSN 2330-717X

Walkie-Talkies Step Up Their Game

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Walkie-talkies were invented 70 years ago. One could be forgiven for ever thinking that the advent, rise and now omnipresence of mobile phones would sound their death knell. But the truth is, in 2018, walkie-talkies are still being used. Now, a Finnish company proposes to enhance them with the mobile broadband technology we find on our smartphones.

AINA calls its technology a ‘PTT Voice Responder’. Rather than submitting to a regular walkie-talkie design we’ve been used to seeing for years, the company created a brand new device that all those who need their hands free in order to do their job can clip to anything – from a carabiner to a keychain or parachute cord.

Using the device is simple. Connect it to a smartphone via Bluetooth, and you’re good to go: with a few programmable buttons, essential functions such as push-to-talk, phone calls, channel switching and emergency alerts can be accessed. The rationale, in the case of police officers for instance, is simple: you cannot chase a criminal and operate a touch screen phone simultaneously.

Maximilian Leroux, CEO of AINA Wireless, discusses the PTT Voice Responder along with three other technologies developed under the IPCOM (Next generation IP-based smart Push-to-Talk communication device for public security) project, and their potential for driving the convergence of walkie-talkie radios and mobile broadband technology.

Why is it important to provide an alternative to walkie-talkie radios?

Our product is rather an enhancement of a walkie-talkie than an alternative. We aim to provide public safety officials and industrial users with a solution to maintain their habits of pushing a button to open a talk channel, so none of that changes.

What we do is adding all modern communication technologies to it, along with their enhanced capabilities like geo-location, man-down and emergency alarms, telemetry, and direct mode communication in case a network is failing. We take something that is old and make it new, without changing the core functionalities.

How do you explain that no such alternative has managed to convince stakeholders yet?

Professional communication is an old school industry with long lasting contracts between big players and governments. Here, the macro-economic perspective where a disruptive technology changes everything doesn’t apply on its own: It also requires a government decision.

When the United States decided to build a broadband network – FirstNet – for first responders, and the United Kingdom turned off Tetra to make room for the Emergency Services Network (ESN) in 2020, it shifted the momentum. Now it’s not a technology or a pitch for more efficiency in communication: it’s going to be a law! We will see more of this to come, and by starting early, we can build our brand and run field trials before the market is crowded.

It is really safe for such organisations to resort to mobile broadband, especially for situations where no Internet is available?

Our standalone Push-to-Talk devices connect to any wireless network, therefore you will always be able to use roaming.

The last fallback for cases where there is no network at all. With our direct mode, you will be able to speak from device to device in a mesh network. As long as you are within range of a team member, you will stay connected. This is also important especially for first responders.

Can you tell us more about the different devices you developed?

We have developed the AINA PTT Voice Responder – a Bluetooth speaker-microphone, for PTT apps with a smartphone in mind. It’s a 2nd generation wireless speaker-microphone since it allows the user to keep their phone in a safe place, yet still remote control all functions their app includes. We also developed a Bluetooth Low Energy device featuring two PTT buttons, an emergency alarm and an accelerometer which can be programmed to trigger an alarm such as man-down.

In a next step we will be launching a product that allows audio over Bluetooth LE to achieve the same short latency people are used to from walkie-talkies, and already add the direct mode as a fallback. This new device will be important for people who are using phones and tablets for other things as well, not just push-to-talk. They will always need their smart device plus speaker-microphone.

Ultimately there will be a new generation of our LTE stand-alone PTT device which will replace the need for walkie-talkies altogether. We expect a high demand for it, because it combines simplicity and ease of use with state-of-the-art technology: Just load any PTT app directly onto the speaker-microphone and you are ready to go.

What has been stakeholders’ feedback so far?

Quality prevails. We are aiming for the high-end and our largest customers and partners are very satisfied with our products. This raises the bar for ourselves, but also customer expectations. AINA Wireless is not in business to compete with Far East manufacturers. The feedback has been 100 % positive and the market seems to look forward to our next move.

What are your commercialisation plans?

We plan to launch at least one new product every six months. With this cadence we can maintain the highest quality while handling government approvals, test plans and field trials to ensure reliable products at market entry.

Anyone can buy and receive our product, even a single unit, from anywhere in the world within about week. Of course, our main focus is placed on partnering with large distributors, mobile operators, two-way-radio manufacturers and the leading developers of PTT apps. This way we have access to large customers and ensure that the whole solution works exactly the way end-users are expecting it to.

What do you still need to achieve before the end of the project?

About a million things, but they start coming together. We have a great team and good partners. By the second half of 2018 we want to be able to present something to the public.

The longest part is always research: What are you trying to do and how? Once you figured out your concept it’s all execution. This is why we have a few engineers that don’t have a real job description, their work is to just come up with ideas. Then we have a whole other team who takes the concepts and puts them into the workflow of product development.

Cordis source: Interview from research*eu results magazine n. 69


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