Sepura's approach to TETRA apps and product design

Critical Communications Today visits Sepura’s headquarters to learn more about the benefits of applications that can run over TETRA and the company’s approach to mission-critical device design

While events are a fantastic place to network and learn about new products, their frantic nature and the busyness of most stands mean that time is a premium and it is not always possible to have long in-depth conversations or peek behind the scenes to get some additional insight. That is why we are paying a visit to Sepura (which we last covered as part of our reporting on Critical Communications World’s exhibition) to learn a bit more about its approach to radio and application design and the amount of testing that goes into finished products.

Back in 2015, Sepura moved from Radio House in central Cambridge, a building once occupied by Pye Telecom, to a 64,000 sq ft purpose-built property in Cambridge Research Park. As we pull in and walk into its spacious and natural-light-filled reception, we are greeted by Ben Yelton, who handles its communications. He leads us upstairs to the boardroom where Terence Ledger (sales and marketing director) and David Croft (product marketing manager) are waiting. Ledger explains that following his recent appointment, having previously been Sepura’s regional director for Asia-Pacific, he brought in Croft to head its marketing team and focus on its product marketing.

Ledger says: “This year one of [our] challenges is to make sure that we’re able to deliver all the radios that have been ordered from us already; we’ve been quite successful – particularly since mid-last year – just in the fact that so many organisations in Europe are doing refreshes of radios, so we’ve just got a logistical challenge – it is a nice problem [to have], but that also affects [our] whole supply chain.

“[We also have to] be sure that when people are looking at what’s available today and our roadmap for tomorrow we can demonstrate that we are able to meet their future mission critical needs now and in the future and that any decisions they make today are consistent with that journey.”

Ledger explains that the company’s new SCG22 mobile TETRA terminal, which was launched at CCW in Kuala Lumpur, has the same platform and applications environment used in the company’s portable terminals; the LTE Vehicle terminal prototype has the same physical dimensions and mounting options to simplify the retrofitting within existing installations; and the SC20’s large, high-resolution screen that can be easily used for data-based applications. These design choices are all part of the company’s “continuity roadmap” towards more intelligent devices and its path towards LTE.

He notes one constraint is the ‘real estate’ on a person – a police officer can be carrying 2-3kg of equipment on their belt, hence the SC21’s small form factor, and the integration of a body-worn video camera with a remote speaker mic.

While Ledger says some customers are asking for broadband, but struggle to say why they need it beyond ‘it’s got to be better than narrowband’, he believes that at the end of the day, customers will only invest if they see that it results in operational efficiencies.

Ledger gives an example from the TETRA world. “Our partner in Australia, Radlink, has developed so many applications [for the mining industry] that [generate] operational efficiencies that the companies are willing to invest in infrastructure that has multiple control channels. Monitoring the speed of a vehicle in a remote location: is that person speeding, is the vehicle upside down, is it in the wrong position? It’s a safety thing: [it’s automatically] changing a talkgroup when one truck moves from the haulage road to the unloading area without the driver having to take his hands off the wheel. [In addition], every morning there are five questions sent to every person on a mine: Take Five, they call it, and that’s sent across TETRA today.”

Croft highlights the value that comes from users having to use their radios – “their lifeline” – to perform such tasks, namely that the company doesn’t have to worry about its workers leaving them behind, as might be the case with another device; “building these applications into the device which is their lifeline makes it happen. If you have it as a secondary thing, it’s easily forgotten.”

Ledger adds that those companies that really understand their customers are the ones that have been successfully selling TETRA applications – noting that Radlink employs people who have worked in the mines it sells to and understand their challenges and risks, along with areas where operational efficiencies can be made.

Similarly, Croft adds that much of the insight Sepura uses to inform its product development programme “is the minutia of people’s activities – they’re the really critical things; if we can pick up on those, record them and then build our products and applications to fit what they do, not the other way round, that makes the difference. Apps have to be part of the product, not something else to do, [they have] to be part of a daily routine; as soon as you go off the day-in-the-life route, you get into the ‘oh, I forgot about…’ or ‘[it] didn’t happen’ or ‘I left [it] in a drawer’.”

“If you look at [one of our] recent sales successes, which has [generated] a lot of publicity,” adds Ledger, “part of that [came from] presenting to that customer in the tender/RFI phase in this room about ‘a day in a life’, and there were two things that came up [while discussing the customer’s end-users] that have been adopted as new services for [them].”

One factor that grew in importance in the UK public safety sector when the programme to deliver the Emergency Service Network (ESN) switched to the incremental delivery of functionality is the capacity of user organisations to handle change – both logistically and in terms of the changes to operating procedures that are needed to take advantage of new features. Does Sepura ever encounter a similar issue?

“It varies,” Ledger says. “Some UK police forces are better at change [and adapting] than others. Some of our customers have surprised me by just how willing they are to look at [things with] new eyes – they’re embracing the [data-centric approach] and how they can use it to make themselves more efficient and save money; but then there’s others [who say] ‘we’ve always operated like this’ – and they can be resistant to change. We need to use the early adopters and evangelise [their usage of new technology]. At Sepura, we do that through holding an annual UK user group forum, where we bring all our customers, share best practice, share what works in other forces –we don’t chair it – it’s chaired by end-users; we just get together and they talk about the issues and how they are using our devices together. That happens in other markets as well; our partners in the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as Scandinavia, bring in Sepura users and talk about what’s new, best practice, all those sorts of things – that’s a good way of helping organisations to drive change.”

We then pass through the area where Sepura’s LTE mobile terminal is being developed – a mix of normal office workstations and benches with test and measurement equipment, such as signal analysers. I’m told that this is where all product development takes place and all of Sepura’s TETRA terminals were developed here. Here too is where the vast majority of the company’s terminals are supported, with one of the biggest challenges being the amount of customisation that has to be supported.

We then head to the company’s test lab. On the way, Croft explains that when it comes to voice quality, the most important criterion is call intelligibility – the ability for someone to hear each and every word during a call, rather than how closely the call’s audio resembles normal speech.

We are ushered into an anechoic chamber. The door is sealed and suddenly all background noise vanishes. It is quiet – so quiet that in fact some people can become a bit “giddy”. I suffer no strange effects, but my voice feels strangely distorted, as if my ears aren’t used to hearing it in the absence of all other sound. In the middle of the chamber is something resembling a crash test dummy wearing a police anti-stab vest jacket. It is here that sound-pressure testing is performed to ensure that use of the company’s devices cannot result in hearing damage, even when held right next to the ear.

Elsewhere in the lab, which could be described as a two-way radio torture chamber comprised of ingenious Meccano-like devices, radios are variously cooked, frozen, crushed, (unsuccessfully) drowned and hit with steel ball bearings. As research indicates that two-way radio users typically push a radio’s PTT button 200,000 times during its lifetime, a mechanical finger presses the button 500,000 times in rapid woodpecker-like succession to simulate heavy usage. In addition to IP testing for dust and water ingress, it is here that the company’s waterporting feature is put to the test.

We then move to the software lab where apps are developed – for AppSPACE, the company’s app platform, and also more general firmware updates. As there is little to see due to the nature of software development and coding, we continue on to the demonstration room, where Ian Salisbury, senior customer support engineer, and the full range of Sepura equipment, together with many devices from the company’s past, are waiting for us. I am quite astonished by the weight and size of the old Simoco radios (Sepura began its life as Simoco’s TETRA division). Yelton explains that Sepura recognises devices have to deliver on the needs of end-users and there is a point where there is no value in making its portable terminals smaller, as that would make them harder to operate.

Salisbury walks us through some of the company’s AppSPACE apps, focusing on those that are designed to make it easier to manage large radio fleets and their associated equipment. He starts with the Battery Date Checker app, which warns when a battery is nearing the end of its useful life and helps prevent customers from discarding batteries that have a lot of working life left in them. Ledger says the app was developed to save customers money and this desire overrode the fact that it would reduce battery sales. He also holds it up as an example of an app that doesn’t put any additional load on the user’s network.

Next up on the list is the Radio Asset Logger, which require users to log in to a radio before use – when they do this an SDS message is sent, to update a centrally managed asset register. Salisbury says part of the thinking behind this is to increase users’ accountability for the condition of their radios – and through doing so allow organisations with pooled radios to see some of the benefits that are normally associated with individual issue.

Then there is the Lost Radio Alerter, which works in conjunction with a Bluetooth tag on the user’s person to cause the radio to emit a loud alert if it is separated from the user, and can escalate this if it is not answered by sending a message with ID and GPS location data to a team leader or control room. In addition to helping to reduce the cost of lost equipment, Croft adds that there is also a convenience factor – for example, when extended to other equipment, this approach could prevent an engineer from climbing all the way down from the top of a wind turbine before realising they have left their toolbox at the top of it.

We turn to over-the-air-programming (OTAP), which Salisbury says has recently been launched. He adds that it is a TETRA industry first for Sepura – “a lot of our customers are really excited about this”. From a security perspective, he explains that it will only work when the radio is connected to approved Wi-Fi hotspots, uses SSL certification, and requires a Wi-Fi/OTAP licence. Salisbury adds that it solves issues cost-effectively, keeping radios up to date for large fleets or where radios are located in remote locations.

OTAP covers the customisation of a radio and its AppSPACE functions; for example, setting the text on a radio’s display to “Firearms” to indicate that it is set up with the talkgroups used by firearms officers. Salisbury demos the OTAP functionality, explaining that the radio instantly starts to receive the update, but users will also be able to set the system to apply the updates in a variety of modes, for example when each radio is switched off or switched on, thus ensuring continued operational availability.

We left with a new appreciation for the amount of thought and effort that goes into TETRA radios and ensuring they have the resilience and robustness that many users take for granted. While the industry’s growing focus on mission-critical broadband is creating challenges for those traditionally focused on TETRA, it is good to see that Sepura has given a lot of thought to how it and its end-users can navigate the transition from a terminal and app perspective.