How to buy mobile data terminals
Written by: Vaughan O'Grady | Published:

Mobile data terminals can greatly improve the efficiency of vehicle-based operations. But, asks Vaughan O’Grady, do you need high-performance software and hardware – or can a modest outlay serve your needs just as well?

Mobile data terminals (MDTs) – computerised devices whose screens can be seen on the dashboards of commercial or emergency vehicles that communicate with a central or back office – take multiple forms and have multiple uses.

A taxi firm will only need, and be able to afford, a few of those uses – usually booking and dispatch “to send jobs and see where the driver is”, as Sue Minskip, office manager of Marandy (a company that offers integrated computer taxi management systems and MDTs) puts it. Billing for account holders is another potentially useful offering.

Similar needs – data and GPS tracking for vehicle dispatch or pick-up of a parcel or passenger – justify the purchase of MDTs for companies as varied as the RAC, AA, UPS, FEDEX and others.

For the police, however, it’s different, says John Thomson, Panorama Antennas’ technical sales and support manager, and chair of the Federation of Communication Services (FCS) Vehicle Installers Group. Essentially, police forces are using mobile data terminals to enable them to do more work on the road. “They basically pull in all the functionality into one terminal – things like automatic number plate recognition and police national computer access,” he explains.

Purchasing decisions will differ too. Thomson says: “A small taxi company going into mobile data would probably look at other companies and do the same thing. But big organisations would probably use consultancies working into a system integrator, establishing the needs, then what’s actually required and then maybe putting out to tender certain aspects of the project.” That could include connectivity to the back office, software packages and vehicle installations.

Consultancy services can certainly be helpful. John Dundas, whose consultancy work involves radio communications and telecommunications systems and services, worked with Glasgow Private Hire, a 500-cab taxi company, on its migration to the iCabbi cloud-based dispatch and automation platform. He says: “The main thing that any company must do before purchasing any in-vehicle equipment is carry out a full needs assessment so that they can determine the specification of the devices for the tender document.”

Many end-users will be big enough to have in-house IT expertise to help with product selection and integration, although Thomson suggests that not all IT staff will understand radio and so might need relevant training – or to work with colleagues or consultants who do understand radio.

Simon Clifton, commercial director of Thorcom, a communications technology company that designs and manufactures products and solutions for emergency services, public utilities and public transport sectors, points out: “Although the main hardware platform will be ‘off the shelf’, customisations in areas such as security, power management, physical mounting and wireless communications all require some attention. This is a mixture of system integration, hardware choices and software engineering.”

He adds: “If you can’t or don’t want to buy your MDT hardware or software from one vendor, make sure there is plenty of time and resource to properly test them both together in a real vehicle environment.”

But you don’t always have to budget for a vast outlay. Dundas points out: “Smaller companies would just do their own thing as they want to keep the cost down, some using the least expensive devices on the market that meet the minimum specifications – typically from £100 per device.”

However, even systems with modest requirements still need the relevant software and must also be integrated with back-office systems. Marandy’s Minskip says: “We supply the computerised taxi management system, which is our product. We then program the MDT or PDA, depending on which the customer wants.”

Installation can be a quite demanding procedure, sometimes requiring expert help. Not restricting the view – or distracting the driver – is essential. And of course you mustn’t block the airbag (see "Installation essentials" below).

You also need to plan ahead. “If the installation requires skilled technicians then your company must be aware that vehicles will be taken off the road for each installation,” says Clifton.

The FCS offers a UK-specific safe installation code of practice: FCS1362:2016, so check to see if an installer is accredited to work to this standard when deciding whether you should use them.

You don’t always need to install a dedicated MDT, of course. Minskip says: “A PDA is also used by taxi firms as they can be programmed just the same as MDTs.” But MDTs can usually do more. Marandy’s MDT – 4300 offers integrated voice and a range of plug-and-play peripherals such as a card reader and camera.

A growing number of MDTs are in fact tablets. Dundas says: “Within the taxi trade and other transport sectors, people are using off-the-shelf tablets held within a vehicle-mounted cradle. Such devices mean that costs can be kept down with no special operating system and all they will need is the software for the applications they are running.”

Tablets are also popular among the blue-light services, some of which have quite ingenious approaches to their use. Clifton says: “Thorcom’s MDT install base (about 2,000 ambulances) uses a remote touchscreen ‘head’ on the dashboard, run by a vehicle computer in the back, which does several additional things including electrical power management and sophisticated communications back to the control room.”

He continues: “Nowadays, the solution is split – the ‘MDT’ is effectively a touchscreen tablet, running an app, with communications either in the tablet (not very effective, but demountable), or in a separate communications device in the back (a router). For an ambulance it is further evolved to a ‘front tablet’ for mobilisation only, which is bolted to the dash, and a rear ‘touchscreen computer’, which is used for patient care, and may be removed from the vehicle (patient side) if needs be. In other words, the ‘MDT’ is really an app, running on a mobile computing device which could be a smartphone, tablet, or other vehicle-mounted device, which itself might have comms (i.e. a smartphone) or not. We prefer to use Android devices for our apps.”

A tablet can double as a remote working support tool. With its own 4G wireless connectivity – or a 4G router in the vehicle and a tablet that can connect via Ethernet or Wi-Fi – a tablet can be both an MDT and a detachable mobile computer. In 2014, Hertfordshire police were the first force in the country to use a Windows 8 Panasonic FZ-G1 Toughpad and dock it in the car, offering MDT-like services with remote working.

The systems the emergency service uses will often need to be ruggedised as well as sophisticated, so they don’t come cheap. However, as Clifton points out: “One instance of loss of operational availability of an expensive resource (such as an ambulance) due to MDT failure may be more costly than the actual cost of the MDT device itself.” Therefore having tough devices, or a virtually instantaneous MDT field-swap capability, is probably wise.

No doubt Jon Tucker, senior manager, product marketing, computer product solutions at Panasonic, would agree. He says: “The future of mobile workforce productivity lies in a powerful combination of better-connected rugged devices and connection-enhancing hardware peripherals specially designed for in-vehicle use. All Panasonic devices are designed for optimised connectivity and Panasonic vehicle docks are available with integrated antenna pass-through. Combine that with a 4G MIMO antenna and a rugged wireless router with vehicle networking solutions and field workers really can take their office to the road.”

The company also focuses strongly on safety. Devices “meet EU regulations to ensure they do not interfere with a vehicle’s electronics systems”. Docks and bracketry for installation, meanwhile, “undergo full vehicle safety, impact testing and stress analysis by a third party in addition to the standard Toughbook vibration and temperature testing”.

And, of course, custom installation will be necessary as no two vehicles are the same. “We can also recommend, certify and integrate third-party accessories such as pull-down screens and power supplies to complete the solution.”

End-user groups for Panasonic’s services include automotive, aviation, emergency service, forklift, logistics, transportation, utilities, engineering and field service.

Remember, however, that security and resilient communications matter. You are bringing access to back-office systems to users in the field, so is your information safe and can the device be locked into place? If you are using 3G or 4G to connect the MDT to the back office (as is often the case), do you have a fallback? And do you have an effective antenna? Clifton says: “Loss of communications (due to network coverage issues) has a greater effect on operational efficiency than user error or hardware failure, so this needs careful analysis and engineering.” Thomson adds: “Some public safety users will use two SIM cards.”

Chosen with care, an MDT and associated software will usually be a good investment. Whether yours is a big company or local cab office, the purpose of having an MDT, says Thomson, “is that you can streamline your operations and make them more cost-effective”.

But there is one final caveat. As Clifton says: “Most MDT projects are longer than the normal obsolescence lifetime of the devices used to build the solution. Mitigating against this should be thought about at the start.”

Installation essentials
MDT installation needs will vary. Consultant John Dundas explains: “For emergency services and public service groups, the data terminal solution they may have will require a fully integrated mounting solution that will be wired to the fuse box or battery supply for power.” He adds: “They may also have roof mount antenna fitted for LTE/GPS. This requires a high level of expertise to be able to strip out the panels within a vehicle and wire it without having an effect on the vehicle’s electrics and the airbag system as you route cables around the vehicle. This will also increase the cost.”

By contrast, he says: “For companies using a simple solution which uses a smartphone, then a standard mobile phone mount can be used which would stick onto the windscreen or clip onto the vehicle’s airvents. [It is] low-cost and easy to install. Power would be taken by cable from the USB or 12v socket in the dash.”

What to consider: the main dos and don’ts of buying MDTs

  • Do be clear about what your requirements are
  • Do ask the supplier to show you copies of the test certificates for each vehicle docking solution
  • Do clarify what the installation will include
  • Do use the demo/trial/pilot to evaluate both connectivity and software
  • Do find out what the warranty cover is
  • Do a proper needs assessment
  • Do check the vehicles’ warranty won’t be void
  • Don’t buy on cost. Buy on fit for purpose
  • Don’t leave anyone out. Consult with all relevant departments
  • Don’t overlook mobile device management and vehicle power management
  • Don’t expect the installation teams to perform miracles and do it all in two days. It takes planning
  • Don’t overlook safety: make sure all aspects have been considered
  • Don’t be scared to bring in a consultant
  • Don’t rush the tender technical specification – or the project. It will end up costing you more money

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