While patrolling the streets, police officers get accustomed to having to juggle all sorts of tasks -- operating two-way radios, scanners, radar and video equipment, sirens and lights -- not to mention having to peer into alleys and check mirrors for possible wrongdoing, all while maneuvering in traffic.
That's just business as usual for the majority of police officers -- but not those officers whose vehicles are equipped with Project 54, a voice-activated system that allows officers to operate most equipment -- radios, scanners, siren, lights, etc. -- with voice commands, instead of taking their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road.
The New Hampshire State Police and the Carlsbad, Calif., Police Department, which implemented the system in May 2005, are among the growing number of police forces nationwide providing their officers with the ability to speak commands to run various pieces of equipment in their police cruisers.
The system, named after the 1960s television show, Car 54, Where Are You? was developed by the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and tested by the New Hampshire State Police in early 2002. The testing went well and in August 2003, most squad cars, save the older vehicles near the end of their life span, were outfitted with the technology.
The New Hampshire State Police, one of more than 60 police agencies using Project 54, had deployed it in about 700 cars as of February 2006, according to University of New Hampshire Research Computing Center Director William Lenharth, lead engineer on the project.
"When we started, our functionality was limited," said New Hampshire State Police Lt. Mark Liebl, who first tested the system for the state police. "At first, it was limited to the emergency lighting equipment and siren. Then we expanded to radar equipment, video equipment -- essentially anything and everything that you would normally have to push a button on the controls."
By spring 2006, the system's capabilities expanded, allowing officers to switch between 256 radio system channels by voicing a command.
"Our radio has 256 channels, and we can talk to everyone in the state," Liebl said, adding that trying to locate a specific frequency on a radio control screen can be a problem at any speed, but is particularly dangerous when driving at high speeds. "You're trying to find one frequency out of 256 when you really need to be concentrating on the road and traffic."
Instead of pushing buttons to find the right frequency, the officer depresses what was once the cruise control button on the steering wheel (converted to the "talk button") and gives the command for the proper frequency. The system repeats the request in an audible tone then finds the correct frequency.
"Every time a command is given, the system gives you a confirmation," Liebl said. "So if I say Concord Police Department, the PC will say 'Concord Police Department,' then I will hear the radio clicking through the stations as it's looking for Concord. When it gets to Concord Police Department, the beeping will start. I'll know that I'm there, and I can start talking to Concord PD direct."
The Carlsbad Police Department belongs to a regional radio system called the Regional Communication System (RCS) on which there are more than 100 frequencies. It was a challenge for officers to find each frequency before the city deployed Project 54 last year.
"You've got to remember how to get to those frequencies," said Carlsbad Police Department Administrator Maria Callander. "They're controlled by zones, and you've got to move over three zones or five rows to get to the correct channel. You have to remember where it is on the matrix."
Using Project 54, Callander said, officers only need to say the name of the channel, and the radio knows how many buttons to push.
"If the officer says 'LE north command,' which is the law enforcement north command channel, it will go over five rows and down three columns or whatever and you can hear the radio beeping as it does it," she said.
Officers utter commands in a regular voice.
The microphone that receives the commands is mounted on the dashboard. "You just kind of talk in front of you," Callander said. "I can't say that it's 100 percent accurate. There are times when it won't recognize you. But in terms of causing problems, I haven't heard of any. It doesn't matter if you have an accent or if the siren is on, it has a very high accuracy rate."
The commands are not prerecorded, but instead generated through a speech-text and text-speech engine provided free by Microsoft, according to Lenharth. The commands are in text files and can be modified easily using configuration software provided by UNH.
"One of our commands is 'strobes,' for lights," Liebl said. "Your department may want to use 'blue lights' instead of strobes. All you have to do is change the vocabulary in the software from 'strobes' to 'blue lights,'" he said. "It sounds somewhat simplistic, but that's essentially what happens."
So who can do this?
"Anyone with software programming experience and no -- you don't have to bring it back to UNH," Liebl said. The software was designed with an open architecture, he said. Once it's programmed, it will understand commands regardless of whose voice it is. "If you sat in my cruiser and you knew how the system operated as well as what were considered valid commands, it would act upon your very first command without hesitation."
Callander said the accuracy would decrease if a larger vocabulary were attempted because the more code words introduced, the greater the chance for confusion.
"You bring up the Project 54 screen, and there are about 20 commands on each of the three screens per screen. For example, on our smart siren screen an example of a command would be 'code three, on,' and that will turn the lights and sirens on. To turn them off, you would say, 'Code three, off.'"
The smart siren screen is one of three screens, including the radio control screen and the patrol screen, which has a myriad of functions, including radar functions and screens for accessing the department's criminal records.
If the system doesn't recognize a command, it says "unrecognizable." In the early stages of implementation, the command "right alley," which is a command that turns certain lights on, sounded to the system like "radar," and it would respond by saying "radar." At that point, the officer would have to turn on the lights manually.
"But what you can do in Project 54 is change it from 'right alley' to 'alley right,'" Callander said. "Problem solved."
The system has a safety net in that none of the original buttons were taken out. Callander said the Carlsbad Police Department looked at other voice-command systems, but they required that all of the patrol cars' original systems be removed. Project 54 is completely redundant.
"We looked at some systems and found their big negative was that they took out all the other [original] systems," Callander said. "We have all the buttons in there, so if they say 'right alley' and the darn thing kept saying 'radar,' they can just reach down and push the button that says 'right alley.'"
Both the Carlsbad Police Department and New Hampshire State Police spent about $1,000 per vehicle to implement the system, but already had mobile data terminals in the cars.
"Anybody that currently has a mobile data terminal in their vehicle that's operating on a Windows platform -- ideally Windows 2000 or Windows XP -- wouldn't have to purchase a whole lot, and the cost would be minimal," Liebl said.
The New Hampshire State Police uses the Motorola Astro radio system. Its computers are about the size of a brick and are embedded in the vehicle consoles.
"You could go with a ruggedized laptop in a docking station and use that PC format," Liebl said. "There are tablet PCs out there; some of them are mounted on the dash and face the officer."
The system makes things a little easier on the officer but above all, it makes things safer, Callander said, recalling an incident where an officer was traveling at 60 mph down a city street.
"He didn't have to reach down and push the button on his radio to get on LE north command. He was able to just click the button and say 'LE north command,' still keeping his eyes on the road and concentrating so as not to hit anybody."