Frederik Langhendries summarises the ASTRID User Days event. ASTRID, the Belgian TETRA network operator, welcomed more than 1,500 participants and around 50 exhibitors

Frederik Langhendries summarises the ASTRID User Days event. ASTRID, the Belgian TETRA network operator, welcomed more than 1,500 participants and around 50 exhibitors 


This year’s ASTRID User Days event took place in an unusual venue – the Stayen football stadium in Sint-Truiden. Belgian security and home affairs minister Jan Jambon opened the event, and justice minister Koen Geens visited the ASTRID exhibition space.

‘Innovation’ was this year’s theme. Alongside the traditional critical communications equipment many drones were on display. The programme offered a choice of more than 40 seminars over the two days, which is an absolute record. These covered topics as varied as the mid-life upgrade of the ASTRID network, different ways to use social media, intelligent cameras, smart cities, cyber security, ANPR, big data and wireless communication solutions for unmanned rescue missions, and disaster risk management. 

A dozen user forums from the police, fire brigades, public health and drone industry seized the opportunity to organise their own meetings at ASTRID User Days. The Circle of Police Leadership (CPL), a professional association for senior managers in the Belgian police, organised a national conference on the subject of smart policing. The various speakers from academic circles, companies, or police practice dealt with innovation and the intelligent use of new technology by the police. 

A very special workshop stream was the Safety and Security Academy, where leading international experts dealt with challenges facing the relationship between security, technology and society. ASTRID also invited Enterprise Europe Network to organise an international technology matchmaking brokerage event.


Drone valley
One of the innovative applications shown during ASTRID User Days proved very hard to miss: drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). Sint-Truiden (the town hosting the event) is known for its ‘drone valley’ where companies and start-ups are based in a former airfield. It therefore made perfect sense to transform the stadium’s soccer field into a drone demo area for private and public partners to reveal their latest models. In addition, a full workshop stream provided an insight into the added value drones can provide during police and emergency services operations. Belgian Civil Protection gave a demonstration using drones from the recently launched RPAS teams (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System) that are able to measure gas concentrations or transmit live video or infrared images. Data and images can easily be transferred to a crisis command and control centre via Blue Light Mobile – ASTRID’s high speed data service. 

The University of Leuven reminded us that we are only at the beginning of the drone evolution. University researchers presented promising projects such as self-learning drones able to assist rescue teams in the search for missing persons. “For many attendees drones are still a long way off, but the future is sometimes closer than we expect,” says Bart Kuyken, major at Noord-Limburg fire department. “I’m an active member in several work groups dealing with drones. We haven’t got any drones yet for our own fire station but we planned the necessary budget for next year.” 

GeoPortal, App112 and BE-Alert
Three major applications with high added value for citizens’ safety were demonstrated in the ASTRID exhibition space: GeoPortal, App112 and BE-Alert. 

 GeoPortal is a Geographical Information System (GIS) portal created by ASTRID for all control rooms. The 50 map layers available in GeoPortal are a huge source of information in addition to the operational map in the CAD control room system. The web portal only shows the most recent map versions as they are directly copied from different sources in the GeoPortal database, including traffic information, maps of flooding areas, hazardous industries, cycling and walking paths and Google Street View. Call-takers and dispatchers in control rooms are now able to define incident locations very accurately. The aim is to make GeoPortal remotely available, via Blue Light Mobile, in a mobile version on tablets for field teams. 

App112 is a project managed by the Belgian Ministry of Security and Home Affairs in which ASTRID is one of the technical partners. This app enables citizens to interact with rescue services via a smartphone and connect with the appropriate control room (police, fire, ambulance) by selecting the right button. This app also contains a special text chat function for deaf people. The Belgian authorities aim to launch App112 by early 2017. 

The new BE-Alert platform, which quickly alerts the public in an emergency situation, will be used by the crisis centre of the Belgian Ministry of Home Affairs. During the first trial stage in 2014 several tests were carried out involving 33 Belgian municipalities and the county governors. These tests were the basis for the development of the final BE-Alert project. Following this two-year test phase, realisation of BE-Alert has recently been assigned to wireless service operator Nextel. A national rollout will take place early next year.

In its workshop Nextel explained that members of the public can be alerted in four ways in an emergency: by
voice call, text message, social media and siren. BE-Alert will be managed at federal level but will also be available for local authorities. 

Lessons learnt after Brussels
Six months after the shock terror attacks the lessons learnt were one of the main topics in both the plenary session and the workshops. Shortly after the attacks about five ASTRID base stations (out of 24) in Brussels and two outside Brussels experienced serious congestion problems. The unusual situation of two or more almost simultaneous incidents meant radio communication was concentrated in several very limited areas. Many radio users from outside Brussels were mobilised to provide assistance and there was a loss of commercial networks for mobile telephony. Despite a heavy load the ASTRID systems did not experience any technical breakdowns. 

In accordance with the user advisory board, ASTRID drew some valuable lessons from the Brussels events relating to both technical and operational issues. The ASTRID radio network capacity is currently being increased on a dozen base stations in Brussels. Other projects include setting up a secondary control channel, real-time capacity monitoring, and increasing priority for Blue Light Mobile high-speed data communications. ASTRID’s new satellite van (alongside the existing lorry) will be operational by mid-2017. Among the operational aspects are plans to review priorities, pre-emptions of calls and on multi-agency fleet mappings, as well as improved training in radio network use and radio discipline in crisis situations. 

During the User Days the ASTRID training team organised refresher sessions on TETRA communications and lesser-known functions such as DMO, gateway, fall-back and shortcut keys. An expert explained the general principles of fleet mapping, and there was also a presentation of the latest e-learning tools by training provider TETRAsim.


Security and home affairs minister Jan Jambon takes a penalty kick to launch the event. Hundreds of attendees followed his example over both days 

Next generation Blue Light Mobile
Blue Light Mobile (BLM) is ASTRID's mobile high-speed data service launched in 2014. This MVNO model offers emergency services and security agencies specific secured high-speed data capabilities. A single SIM card provides access to the three Belgian commercial mobile operators and 11 operators in neighbouring countries, as well as priority and a secure environment for end users.

During his opening speech, security and home affairs minister Jan Jambon confirmed that the second generation of Blue Light Mobile will gradually be rolled out in 2017 across user organisations. Version two will also deliver high-quality voice communications and will receive expanded priority access to the network (pre-emption).

In the future ASTRID will offer two technologies for voice communications: TETRA and Blue Light Mobile. TETRA will remain the major tool for critical group voice communications and BLM offers a solution for high-speed data. However, the communication needs demonstrated during the Brussels terror attacks clearly revealed a demand for reliable individual phone communications, through commercial mobile telephone networks, to and from a small group of officials and crisis managers who are not always equipped with TETRA radios.


Delegates during one of the plenary sessions; photographer: Cynthia Reekmans 

ASTRID’s mid-life upgrade
Attendees of the User Days workshop programme were given an overview of the ongoing ASTRID mid-life upgrade (MLU). Over recent years many network components have undergone renewal. And there is a full schedule for the months ahead. Certain components of the old systems reached end of life status, and suppliers are no longer able to offer maintenance or a replacement. With the MLU ASTRID aims to guarantee 10 to 15 years of additional service continuity and reliability to the users of radio, paging and dispatching services. Whereas the original ASTRID architecture was often based on a provincial structure, ASTRID has now chosen to centralise its infrastructure in highly secured professional data centres. 

In June this year ASTRID renewed its paging system. This involved replacing the network core and its auxiliary system (consolidated in three data centres), the gradual replacement of the emitters on the antennas, and the addition of certain features with added value for users (encryption and acknowledgment). 

Renewal of the TETRA radio network is also underway. All provincial switches have been replaced by the new DXT3 units and the provincial backbone has been converted into IP technology. The renewal of all base stations will start in 2017. In the meantime, radio release seven will be rolled out. All these improvements offer higher stability and reliability to end users. 

Regarding control rooms, the major innovation is still to come. Both software and hardware – computers, servers, screens, etc. – are to be replaced. The infrastructure at provincial level will be moved to the central data centres. Control room personnel will continue working in their local environment but with virtualised databases and applications. The biggest benefits are availability, management and greater security. 

ASTRID is looking to the future with enhanced data capabilities, greater capacity to handle large-scale events, and renewal of its infrastructure. With user organisations challenged as never before, ASTRID is working to ensure that they have all the resilience, reliability and features they require for their critical communications.

Key figures about ASTRID

ASTRID has more than 70,000 end users spread over 700 public safety organisations in Belgium.

The main users are local police (25,000 radios) and the federal police (5,700 radios), followed by the fire departments with 20,000 pagers and 11,000 radios. The Ministry for Public Health (ambulances) has more than 2,000 radios, defence has 1,500, and civil protection has 800 radio terminals. In addition to these main user organisations,
many other public and private agencies such as customs, security companies, public transport, energy and water supplies use ASTRID for their critical communications. 

Since the full rollout of the radio network in the early years of the millennium, the number of subscriptions has grown steadily year on year. 

Each day the ASTRID systems process more than 56,000 radio group calls (two million radio contacts), 6,400 calls to volunteer firefighters (paging), and 7,800 emergency calls from the public.

Author: Tetra Today