Fortress mesh system lets you set up wireless networks on the fly

Portable units allow for communications and videoconferencing where no network exists

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Librestream, which makes the Onsight field camera.

In any type of disaster response situation, there will likely be at least two teams of responders. How well they can communicate with each other could determine how many lives they save or how much damage they prevent.

The first team is made up of experts. These are the people who can look at a fountain of water spewing on Main Street and instantly tell if it’s a 6-inch feeder line or a 12-inch main line causing the problem. In military situations, the experts could be those who can look at a crater and figure out what type of bomb or munitions created it. In some cases, they might simply be decision-makers who need to be able to see and analyze a variety of readings coming in from the field. And those experts are almost never on the front lines, especially as events are unfolding.

The second team is made up of first responders. These brave individuals are often racing toward danger while everyone else is running the other way. They might not necessarily be experts in every area, but they are highly trained for field operations.

Fortress Technologies is bridging the communications gap between those two groups. The company’s ES210 Tactical Mesh Point with Librestream Onsight 2000R field camera, as the names imply, consists of a portable radio called a mesh point and a military-rugged camera that can take video or pictures and even facilitates videoconferencing when connected to the mesh point.

The mesh point looks like a standard walkie-talkie and is about the same size. Fortress recommends that users wear it on the back in a special pocket that allows the thick antenna to stick up and out, though someone could easily carry it if needed.

The unit is designed to operate continuously for eight hours without recharging. We tested the battery in the lab and found that even with heavy use, it was able to hit that mark. With lighter loads, it can last much longer. When needed, you can replace the battery by removing a metal front plate. That can be done fairly easily without tools by turning the two large screws that hold it down, each of which has grips for fingers. However, it’s much easier if you happen to have a small flathead screwdriver handy.

The mesh unit is extremely rugged. We put it through the complete 810F mil-spec testing for shock, vibration, heat and cold — and even had it spend time in the GCN Rainforest environment, where temperatures reach as hot as 120 degrees and humidity is close to 100 percent. It suffered no damage in any of the testing.

The mesh unit is different from a normal access point in some interesting ways. It uses special 802.11 frequencies, such as the 4.9 GHz public safety band, so it’s unlikely to get jammed even in an area with a lot of wireless communications traffic. It’s designed to work with very low tolerances, whereas a standard access point might drop traffic with weaker signals.

Fortress said that when using a special directional antenna, the device can transmit the 802.11 radio signal as far as four miles. We didn’t get anywhere near that in our testing, but we were using the standard antennas between the mesh point and a Fortress ES520 base station. We were able to get transmissions to work over 3,000 feet, but only if we remained within line of sight. That’s farther than any other wireless signal we’ve ever tested. When shooting the signal through doors, walls and closed windows, it worked over much shorter distances, and it was basically comparable to or only slightly better than other commercial access points we’ve tested.

So the mesh unit might not be as great within a city as it would be somewhere like a desert, where line of sight is easier to maintain and the signal works over a larger area. However, because the unit is designed to mesh with others, you could set up a chain of them leading back to your base station or command vehicle that could then relay the signal to a base camp.

Each tactical mesh device is independent of others, so setting up a tactical mesh isn’t difficult after you configure all the units, which you’ve likely done long before you hit the field. When it works right, you can bring a robust network into places where no other communications exists and do so almost instantly. Communications also can be encrypted to Advanced Encryption Standard 256, which could be important depending on where your teams are located or what they’re doing.

At a government price of $3,145, it’s a little expensive for an 802.11 wireless access point, but it's worth it if you need something rugged with the ability to seamlessly integrate with others to form a mesh network on the fly.

So this wireless mesh technology works pretty well. But adding the Librestream Onsight 2000R camera really makes the system functional for teams in the field. Like the mesh units, the Onsight is fully mil-spec rugged. That used to be a pretty big deal for a camera, though we have seen some really rugged models in past years.

The Onsight is fairly heavy, at 2 pounds, 7 ounces. It’s 8 inches wide and 5 inches thick, so you will certainly know you’re carrying it. There are two reasons for the extra mass. The first is the rugged aspects. Like the tactical mesh, we put the Onsight through all the mil-spec testing, and it made it through without so much as a scratch.

The second reason for the extra girth is that the unit is packed with features. It’s a lot more than just a camera. For starters, it can be configured to connect to the tactical mesh units. After you do that, the person with the camera on the front line can send video or still pictures back to people sitting in the command center.

If you push the call button, you can even alert people in the command center that you need to chat with them. That opens a videoconferencing session when they answer. And because the 4-inch-by-3-inch view screen behind the camera is a touch screen, the operator can point out things to those back at base. The experts at the base can also draw on their screen using photo editor-like tools, which will then show up on the camera’s view screen. So if they need the cameraperson to look at a certain object, for example, they can circle it on their screen so the operator knows what to concentrate on.

In our testing, the camera worked great as a videoconferencing tool. As long as line of sight was maintained to the mesh unit, you could travel several hundred feet and still receive a signal. Again, walls and barriers tended to greatly cut down on transmission distances. It might be best to leave the mesh point in a vehicle or with someone else instead of carrying it with you. That would give the camera a much longer wireless tether because its first hop would be to a mesh unit. Otherwise, the first hop might be strapped to your back.

The camera is pretty amazing. It can take high-resolution video and clear, crisp photographs. In our testing, we could zoom to a piece of paper sitting across the room and clearly read its content. There is a ring of lights around the lens that you can use to brighten dark areas, and they can also can be used for taking macro photography. When we sat the camera down lens-first on top of a penny in a dark room, it automatically focused on the coin and displayed it in great detail.

Because of the zoom and macro lens functions — and to a lesser extent, the light ring — there really isn’t a situation in which the Onsight wouldn’t be helpful for capturing images. At a government price of $9,490, it’s a substantial investment. But the price is easily justified if it can save lives, and this system — both the camera and the tactical mesh points — could certainly help do just that.

Fortress Technologies,

Fortress ES210 Tactical Mesh Point with Librestream Onsight 2000R field camera

Pros: Can set up wireless networks on the fly; camera allows perfect teleconferencing with base camp.
Cons: Expensive; relies on line of sight for full signal distance.
Performance: A
Ease of Use: B
Features: A+
Value: A-
Government price: $3,145 for wearable mesh point; $9,490 for the Librestream Onsight 2000R field camera

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