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  1. Science and Technology Directorate
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  3. Feature Article: Urban OpEx—New York City Is a Testbed for First Responder Tech

Feature Article: Urban OpEx—New York City Is a Testbed for First Responder Tech

Release Date: August 25, 2022

For the Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL), working in Manhattan is business as usual. As the official Department of Homeland Security lab for testing and evaluating current and emerging first responder technologies, NUSTL thrives amidst the bustle of the largest U.S. city and has established deep roots with response agencies in the larger metropolitan community. What is more unusual (and exciting) is that the city recently became the main attraction, serving as a key driver for technology demonstrations held at diverse venues across the boroughs of New York City.

Over the course of a week in late July, staff from NUSTL and across S&T collaborated with several federal, state and local agencies for the 2022 Urban Operational Experimentation (OpEx), which also brought together technology developers and first responders to take part in demonstrations and evaluations.

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

Ghost robotics in the hands of a first responder
The week's experiments provided multiple opportunities for responders to get hands-on experience with new technologies. Developers benefit from OpEx by gaining valuable insights from their end users. Photo credit: S&T NUSTL.

The photos in this article glimpse the variety of city locations that provided realistic, urban settings for OpEx demonstrations. More importantly, these snapshots capture the rare but crucial moments when responder know-how and technology solutioning meet. They are snapshots of S&T’s mission come to life, peeks into the future of responder-relevant technologies poised to address high priority capability gaps.

New York City first responders examine the drone and user interface of the Skydio X2 unmanned aircraft system (UAS).
Responders examine the drone and user interface of the Skydio X2 unmanned aircraft system (UAS). A demonstration at Fort Totten included the Skydio Three Dimensional Scan Skill, which enables the UAS to capture visual images of a disaster scene with no prior maps or GPS required. Photo credit: S&T NUSTL.

The lineup of technologies for the week featured unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), deployable robotics, handheld sensors, AI-enabled gun detection, incident management and situational awareness platforms, and deployable communications. The OpEx planning team selected participating technologies by validating them against specific criteria including that each fell into a least one priority area identified for S&T by first responders themselves.

“Operating environments and emergency response capability needs are always evolving and that makes innovation so important,” remarked Kathryn Coulter Mitchell, Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Under Secretary for Science and Technology. “Urban OpEx paves the way for innovation because we’re putting technology developers and first responders in the same room to understand what they need from one another.”

People near a subway train in NYC for the OpEx demonstration
Urban OpEx ventured beneath the city’s 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 tunnel and cave navigation, among others, which allow responders to execute mission critical work from a safe standoff distance. Photo credit: S&T NUSTL.
Four first responders using the Pendar Technologies and demonstrating a point-and-shoot Raman system
Pendar Technologies demonstrated a point-and-shoot Raman system (the Pendar X10) that identifies substances of interest, like homemade or military grade explosives or illegal drugs, from a standoff distance of up to six feet. Photo credit: S&T NUSTL.
A technology developer from ZeroEyes trains a law enforcement officer on how to verify a gun detection alert from their DeepZero Platform.
A technology developer from ZeroEyes trains a law enforcement officer on how to verify a gun detection alert from their DeepZero Platform, an AI computer vision technology for proactive threat identification.
People standing in front of a building near a police car.
New York Police Academy's "Cityscape Room" provided a controlled environment for demonstrating and evaluating DeepZero’s capability to scan a video feed in real-time and detect a drawn firearm. Photo credit: S&T NUSTL.

“Events like Urban OpEx remove the emphasis 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,” offered NUSTL lab director 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.

People sitting and standing in front of several projection screens having a discussion.
Situational awareness tools enhance disaster and emergency preparedness and response by providing a common operating picture, integrating information from disparate sources. VIZSAFE Geoaware Network demonstrated its low infrastructure, rapid deployment solution during OpEx day four. Photo credit: S&T NUSTL.

Urban OpEx leveraged diverse locations, staging simulations at the New York City Fire Department’s Training Academies at Fort Totten and Randall’s Island, the New York City Police Department Police Academy, New York City Emergency Management headquarters, and NUSTL. Operating environments for the technologies under demonstration ranged from a cramped subway tunnel to a lower Manhattan rooftop.

Two people examine the TDCOMM LTE network data collecting equipment,
Data collectors accompany responder-evaluators to capture their feedback. Here a responder examines the Centaur Network, a rapidly deployable LTE network from TDCOMM. Photo credit: S&T NUSTL.
An evaluator calls a NUSTL technologist over TDCOMM’s “network in a box” solution.
An evaluator (left forefront, in red) calls a NUSTL technologist (navy polo on the right) over TDCOMM’s “network in a box” solution designed to support response during an emergency. Photo credit: S&T NUSTL.

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

Those realistic scenarios included a post-disaster search and rescue and damage assessment; a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive threat response; active shooter detection and response; an incoming hurricane; communicating in remote and degraded environments; and a GPS-denied emergency response.

A person testing out the Persistent Wave Relay System.
Autonomous mobile network Wave Relay MANET System (by Persistent) can bridge to analog networks, offering a solution to interoperability between disparate organizations. The system was deployed from NUSTL’s rooftop testing space for responders to evaluate. Photo credit: S&T NUSTL.

More than 150 participants attended the event from public safety agencies around the nation. Their feedback will not only allow the technology vendors to enhance their designs, but will also become available to the national first responder community through NUSTL publications.

First responders in a meeting room providing feedback after using the Wave Relay MANET System.
After using the Wave Relay MANET System in an operation scenario, responders gather for a feedback session and debrief with the technology developers. These open dialogues take place for each demonstrated technology and are held immediately after the experimentation so that user impressions and questions are fresh. Photo credit: S&T NUSTL.

Information and feedback collected 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.

Last Updated: 09/07/2022
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