New Program Focuses on Wearable Technology for First Responders
Tuesday, January 03, 2017 | Comments
As the consumer wearables market continues to grow, companies and organizations in other sectors are looking to take that technology and apply it to their sectors. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is attempting to tap innovation in the consumer market to keep first responders safer and make them more effective with its EMERGE accelerator program.

The U.S. wearable technology market continues to grow each year as more consumers adopt devices such as smart watches and smart glasses. Many industry analysts predict the wearables market to top $30 billion by 2020.

“First responders have so much to carry,” said John Verrico, spokesperson for the DHS S&T. “We’re trying to find ways to make the tools they need easier to carry and more autonomous.”

This year, the EMERGE program, in its second year, selected 10 technology startup companies to participate in the program and engage with first responders, industry partners and investors.

There are two prongs to the EMERGE program, said Brendan Karp, chief of staff for TechNexus, one of the DHS S&T’s partners in the program. The first prong gets the startups’ products into the hands of first responders to receive feedback and input, while the second prong creates partnerships between the startups and larger industry players, as well as finds investors interested in the first responder market.

The DHS S&T works with industry partners to find and develop solutions to obstacles that first responders and other mission-critical personnel face. The agency generally works with larger companies or small businesses through its small business program, but entrepreneurs and startups often have trouble working with the agency because there isn’t a good mechanism to connect those people with the government.

The EMERGE program is one way that DHS S&T is trying to tap the potential innovation found in those startups.

“Government procurement is a slow and resource-intensive process,” Verrico said. “We’re trying new ways to reach out to innovators.”

The DHS S&T announced the second year of the EMERGE program in August and pared down 260 applications to 10 by October. As part of the program, the agency hosted two CONVERGE events that allowed the startups to meet with first responders and potential investors and industry partners. The first CONVERGE event, held Oct. 11-12 in Washington, D.C., brought in 50 first responders to meet with startups and offer insights into their products.

“It was all about getting the products in front of first responders and seeing how they might use them and getting feedback from them,” Karp said.

The second CONVERGE event, Dec. 14-15 in Chicago focused on investing and partnerships with larger industry players.

The first responder market was one factor that drew New York-based Six15 Technologies to the EMERGE program.

“There are a lot of these programs out there, and they’re resource intensive, so you have to choose which ones you really want to do,” said Six15 CEO Rich Ryan. “What was compelling to us was that early on we thought our first market beyond DoD (Department of Defense) would be first responders.”

Six15 produces the Darwin platform, combining wearable hardware and an online software portal to improve situational awareness through different levels of augmented reality (AR).

At its simplest AR level, the platform can provide specific information, such as the radio frequency a first responder is using and the location of that responder’s partner, on the eyeglass hardware. At a higher AR level, the platform can stream video to the web-portal and allow an expert or commander to interact with the first responder in real-time.

For example, an expert helping a first responder repair a broken machine could circle a specific component on the video, and that would then appear in the view of the responder’s hardware, Ryan said.

The platform is customizable and scalable, one barrier that has slowed the adoption and deployment of AR technology for enterprise and other sectors, Ryan said.

Six15 initially developed the platform for DoD and military applications, and once that market took off, the company began looking at other markets, such as enterprise and public safety, that could use the technology.

In expanding to the first responder market, the company faced many of the challenges that the EMERGE program hopes to help overcome. For one, there is no central way to get consistent information on the key issues and problems facing first responders, and the government purchasing system is disaggregated, Ryan said. “Knocking on 20,000 doors becomes difficult.”

The program allowed the company to meet with key stakeholders and get feedback on its product. The program also provided Six15 with opportunities to meet with larger companies that might be interested in adopting or integrating the technology.

“If we can make something that DHS is already using a little better, that is a lot simpler than introducing a whole new technology,” Ryan said.

One other benefit Ryan didn’t expect from the program were the conversations between Six15 and the other nine startups selected for the program. Six15 plans to continue conversations with several of the other startups on ways that they can support each other and integrate their technologies, Ryan said.

The potential to connect with first responders and investors interested in that market also helped draw Chicago-based HAAS Alert to the EMERGE program. The program has helped the company connect with state governments, spurring growth, said CEO and co-founder Cory Hohs. While the company will work with any city or department, it is focusing on higher levels of government, such as state transportation departments, to help promote adoption from the top down.

“There are more than 20,000 cities in the U.S,” Hohs said. “You can’t call them all.”

HAAS Alert created an alerting technology that works through navigation applications and other platforms to alert drivers when emergency vehicles are headed their direction.

On the first responder side, users can download an app onto a mobile device carried by a first responder that then acts as a telematics device. Acoustic sensors cause the application to activate when an emergency vehicle’s sirens turn on and send alerts to nearby drivers.

The company also created a device that activates the alerts when a vehicle’s light bar activates. The goal was to make the application as passive as possible, so emergency personnel don’t have to worry about pushing another button when responding to an emergency, Hohs said.

In addition to access to first responders, exposure to potential investors has been another key benefit of the EMERGE program for HAAS Alert, Hohs said. He said that he thinks more investors are entering the first responder market as the technology becomes more mobile and digital, making deployment by public-safety entities easier and faster.

The EMERGE program provides an extra benefit to startups because those companies can go to potential partners and investors and show that they’ve been vetted by the DHS, sending a positive signal to potential partners, Hohs said. “It’s a little extra oomph that a startup needs.”

This coming year, HAAS Alert hopes to expand its reach to other cities and states and implement feedback, such as creating functionality to help drivers of emergency vehicles avoid collisions with each other, that came from interactions with first responders. It also hopes to expand partnerships with automotive and navigation companies to increase the coverage of its product.

Expanding partnerships is a goal for CommandWear Systems of Vancouver, Canada. The company developed a web-based command-and-control platform that users can access on a variety of smart devices, including smartphones and smart watches.

At its inception, the company focused on developing wearable hardware that would help address several issues first responders face in the field during emergency and special events, including a lack of situational awareness, problems with communications and interoperability, founder and CEO Mike Morrow said. However, after meeting with several first responder organizations for feedback and receiving “several pages of objections to the technology,” the company decided to shift focus from hardware to a web-based platform that could be used over other wearable hardware, Morrow said.

“We realized that whatever devices are going to be used by first responders, they needed a command-and-control platform,” Morrow said.

A web portal provides incident commanders and other personnel with a map-based view of field personnel, as well as a secure messaging interface to those personnel. First responders in the field can receive those messages and, on some smart devices, share videos and pictures with the command center. A replay function that logs all of the data from an event helps organizations with post-event debriefs and investigations, Morrow said.

Connecting with first responders was also a selling point for CommandWear in applying for the EMERGE program. As of early December, the company had already performed about 16 field deployments of its technology and is looking to continue to expand those deployments this year while incorporating the feedback it received into the product.

CommandWear is focusing on piloting the technology at large special events, such as races and parades, because those kinds of events present many of the issues that the company hopes to solve with its platform.

As part of its pilot strategy, CommandWear is working to expand and continue its partnerships within the wearable industry and find other companies with complementary technology, something that the contacts made through the EMERGE program have helped with. One key piece of feedback the company has received from its pilots is that the consumer smart devices are not rugged enough for first responder applications. The company passed that feedback to several of its industry partners and received favorable responses, Morrow said.

The next few months of the EMERGE program will focus on setting up field assessments and trials with forward-thinking agencies, as well as working with the companies on their go-to market strategies, Karp said. That will culminate in a CONVERGE event in March to showcase the progress of the program participants.

Find more information about the EMERGE accelerator program here. Find details on the startups involved in this year’s program here.

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