The main focus for Rega was reducing the weight on board, saving space, and keeping the data up to date. (Motion Computing photo)

Top-Flight Tablets

A Swiss air rescue service enhanced its documentation efficiency and improved flight conditions by adopting new tablet PCs.

It is Rega's mission to provide medical help from the skies directly to the scene of an accident, around the clock. Whether it is an avalanche, a traffic or forest accident, someone who must be rescued from a glacier crevasse, or a red alert: In Switzerland, you can call 1414 any time of the day or night to contact the air rescue services. The teams remain busy, with an average winter weekend often requiring Rega teams to take to the skies on more than 100 assignments to assist people involved in skiing accidents.

The majority of the Rega assignments involve helicopters, which are best suited to access mountainous areas to rescue hikers, pick up injured skiers, and conduct searches or evacuations. In flat country, most of the helicopter assignments are dispatched for traffic accidents, followed by sports and work accidents. Rega also flies patients from one hospital to another and transports organs, as well as medicine.

Rega (an acronym of Rettungsflugwacht and Garde Aérienne – Rescue Flight Services and Aerial Protection) has its main offices in the Rega Center at the Zurich-Kloten Airport. This is where the dispatch office is located, and it serves as the home base for three ambulance jets and a maintenance services center for all aircraft. With 12 helicopter bases distributed throughout the country, Rega is well positioned to provide emergency services. Under good flight conditions, a helicopter can arrive at any accident location within 15 minutes after the alarm has been received.

When pilots start out on assignments, they must carry all important and legally required documents. This includes extensive map material, the MEL (Minimum Equipment List), and the operating manuals for the helicopter, which weigh five to six kilograms alone. Prior to the assignment, the pilot also has to become familiar with the daily information about the situation in the air and on the ground. Weight and balance calculations, including the weight of the passengers and fuel, are part of the preparation and must be ready to be presented to the proper authorities any time the aircraft might land.

Until moving to electronic documentation, these documents were printed out and taken along. In addition to the huge amount of paper and the significant extra weight, the information was also not always up to date.

Technology Improves Flight Conditions
Three pilots, three paramedics, a number of different doctors, and relief personnel are allocated to each of the 12 helicopter bases. A standard crew consists of one pilot, one paramedic, and one doctor, each on call for 24 to 48 hours. In challenging terrain, an additional rescue specialist from the Swiss Alps Clubs (SAC) joins the crew on board. In a helicopter, rescue aids such as telescope rods and crevasse rescue equipment also must be taken along in addition to the routine medical equipment.

Space and weight are decisive factors for every assignment because any weight saved can be allocated to additional medical equipment, fuel, or crew members. This is why it certainly seemed advisable to switch to electronic data, to implement a paperless process, and to automate that process as much as possible.

Due to the specific requirements for use in flight, Rega evaluated various tablet PCs and selected one that quickly came out ahead of the other manufacturers for its superior mobility, excellent battery life, and good value.

One of the chief concerns of the pilots and paramedics was being able to integrate a customized user interface into the start menu to meet their specific needs. Rega's IT project head, Marcel Haldimann, programmed the user interface in Visual Basic.NET so that, thanks to the large keys, the users can access the functions reliably even during flight and when exposed to constant vibration. A stylus has proven to be the ideal instrument to access the menu items with just one click. (Prior to takeoff, the device also can be operated using a mouse and keyboard.) The docking station and the connection options for peripheral devices transform the highly portable solution into a complete desktop replacement solution.

The durable tablet PCs are equipped with a solid state drive (SSD) and feature 2 GB of RAM. Despite the extensive map material required, Rega currently uses a maximum of 20 GB of the available 64 GB SSD, providing potential for the addition of further applications. Running the Windows OS, the tablets are integrated seamlessly into the corporate network and also are equipped with an MS SQL Express Version for the helipad database. The online database at Helipad.org provides the current data on any flight obstacle and specific dangers. If a pilot is flying to a hospital for the first time, for example, he can find out all about the flight approach procedures, night flying, position lights, and refueling.

At 5:30 every morning, the replication mechanism programmed by the IT specialist is run to load the current data from the relevant intranet sectors and the web applications onto the tablet PCs for the individual bases. Because the devices are equipped with a WLAN interface, the crew could work online on the ground. The official EMI test (electromagnetic interference) already has shown that the radio-navigation devices are not affected by the use of the tablets.

"For the users, the main focus was on designing a user interface that makes it possible to operate practically all the functions with just one click," Haldimann said. "The biggest challenge in the introduction of the devices, however, was the programming of the replication and synchronization mechanism." He said the tablets offer many valuable options, "leaving us lots of room to add applications in the future."

Rapid Adoption
Eight assignment teams have tested the tablet PCs over a period of two months based on predefined criteria. During the second phase, the trial operation involved approximately 16 users. All test phases ran without a hitch, and the teams were enthusiastic about how much easier the solution made their work. Following the successful test runs, Rega decided to purchase devices to outfit all of the helicopter bases.

The devices were purchased through I-BITPRO AG, Motion's Swiss distribution partner. Contact was made quickly and easily; thanks to company's attention to customer care, the tablets were soon up and running at the different locations with all desired features. The devices are now in use at each base, and there is an exchange pool available to the IT department.

The tablets are designed for mobile use and built to be strong yet light in weight. IP-54-rated for protection against dust and moisture and MIL-STD-810G tested to ensure protection from drops, the tablets also feature an optional SSD for protection against shock and impact and Gorilla™ glass for advanced screen protection. Being dropped from the helicopter seat into the snow should pose no more of a problem than the constant vibrations and jolts during flight.

Because the users constantly work shifts or are on call, it was necessary to find an alternative to a central user training program. First, the tablets were presented to the pilots at their regular pilot meetings, then one employee from each base was sent to a half-day training course and expected to pass on what he had learned to his colleagues. As the operational project coordinator, Reinhard Weissen was able to conduct the user training course on his own. "Thanks to the intuitive operation and the use of familiar applications, the introduction phase went very smoothly," he said. "In the final analysis, the whole process has become significantly easier with the investment of relatively little time and effort."

A Seamless Work Processes
On assignment, using the tablet is quick and easy. It contains all of the up-to-date information and is removed from the docking station and taken along in the helicopter, stored behind the pilot's seat. Should special information on hospital landing pads, mountain railways, or building heights be required during the flight, the paramedic can get it and directly access the corresponding information.

This information includes up-to-the-minute map data indicating the shooting areas used by the Swiss Army or the many mountain railway transport cables throughout the country, which pose a great danger to the helicopters. The pilot is able to see the current information on the flight area from a less-than-perfect viewing angle and despite any glare caused by snow or sunlight. What's more, thanks to the flight preparation completed and stored before takeoff, the crew is always ready for a possible ramp check, which can be conducted by the aeronautical authorities at any landing place at any time.

The tablet can be used in stand-by mode for up to seven hours. For emergencies, the team carries an extra battery to replace a dead battery without any interruption in hot-swap mode even under difficult conditions, such as when it is extremely cold.

At the end of each shift, the tablet is put back into the docking station to recharge the battery and upload the automatic update from the corporate network. As a result, the shifts always work alternately, with one of the identically programmed computers belonging to the helicopter base. The team can rely on having an up-to-date database and a fully charged battery, regardless of whether it is flying to an assignment on the north face of the Eiger with night vision gear at midnight or is called to a traffic accident early in the morning.

Although the pilot can request information from the central office, it is much easier to have the data ready at the touch of a button at any time and to have access to the relevant intranet sectors with up-to-the-minute information. The phone book and countless maps of ski areas that are not flown to very often are stored in this space-saving format and updated on a regular basis.

The IT department's development work for the integration of the tablet PCs was kept down to a lean 55 man-days. Compared to other "rugged" models, the investment costs for these devices were considerably lower. At a conservative estimate of time savings of approximately 10 minutes per process, the result is an increase in efficiency of up to eight hours per week.

The new system also eliminates the usual paper costs. The investment has really paid off for Rega in every respect, according to those in charge.

"Quick access to more up-to-date information is not only more pleasant for us, it can even increase our safety and the safety of the patients," Weissen said.

Next Steps
Rega's main focus was reducing the weight on board, saving space, and keeping the data up to date. The enormous increase in efficiency and the step toward a paperless, electronic helicopter "flight bag" also were essential criteria.

"Everyone is happy that the mountains of paper have been reduced, that less time is now spent on administration tasks, and that the data available is always up to date," said Weissen. After two months, the pilots and paramedics have gathered a number of ideas as to how the tablets can make their workdays even easier. The decision has been made to collect and examine all of their suggestions centrally. Processing medical reports and online access to current weather information are bound to be at the top of the list of what the users want most.

Key Metric: Total Cost of Ownership
For buyers in the industries in which some mobile workers use fully rugged, semi rugged, or business rugged computers, the most important metric is the total cost of ownership (TCO). According to Group Mobile International LLC, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based supplier of ruggedized computer products, customers often choose a commercial computer initially because of its lower price but soon are back for a ruggedized replacement because the initial choice wasn't up to the job. Group Mobile powers the online store for ruggedized computers and accessories that General Dynamics C4 Systems launched in April 2012. The company lists eight ways in ruggedized computers differ from commercial ones, all of them factoring into the rugged category's lower TCO:

  • Magnesium casings that are tougher than plastic to protect against accidental drops and the impacts a vehicle or field computer experiences in normal use
  • Shock-mounted hard disk drives to prevent a read/write head crash, the primary cause of failure in a mobile computer
  • Added cushioning and padding to protect internal components from drops and vibration
  • Hardened glass making the display screen more resistant to shattering and scratches
  • Sealed keyboards and display screens on semi rugged units protects against liquid spills; fully rugged computers are entirely sealed against dust, dirt, moisture, heat, or cold and will withstand a water spray from any direction
  • Display screens that can be viewed outdoors
  • Intrinsically safe rating of some rugged computers means they are safe for use around hazardous materials or flammable gases
  • A three-year warranty is typical for ruggedized computers -– three times longer than the one-year warranty on most commercial computers

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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