Police Helicopter Pilot

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Persistent Surveillance & Airborne Law Enforcement

What can a set of powerful airborne cameras do for you?

What happens when you mount a powerful camera, or an array of powerful cameras, in the belly pod of low cost fixed wing airplane and hang them 6,000’ over a city for 3 to 4 hours at a time? And what if those cameras could record the movement of every single person and every single vehicle in a 25 square mile area all at the same time for that 3 to 4 hour period.

Here is what you get. For every crime that occurs in that 25 square mile area that requires the perpetrator to move from one location to another, either by foot or vehicle, all of his movements are recorded and captured on hard drivers for evidence and review. Very often the suspect’s movements are captured for several hours both before he committed the crime(s) and several hours after he committed the crimes.

For Ross McNutt, the CEO and founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems based near Dayton Ohio, this scenario is a reality that has unfolded numerous times over American cities, often while he has been demonstrating his surveillance system to various government agencies. Specifically McNutt and his eye in the sky surveillance system has captured evidence on over 30 murders that occurred while his cameras were recording the suspect(s) movements before and after the crime. In some cases his cameras have captured the murder itself, as it happened. 

This image of a drive by shooting as it occurred, is from the Persistent Surveillance Systems website.

This image of a drive by shooting as it occurred, is from the Persistent Surveillance Systems website.

Information on the Persistent Surveillance System website lays out the case for his system in more detail. The PSS HAWKEYE system and image analysis have directly let to the apprehension of violent offenders and have assisted law enforcement on over 30 murder investigations since 2007. According to the website officers have used the imagery to do the following;

·                  Backtrack murder suspects to their homes/places of origin

·         Track suspects to every location thy went to before, during and after the crime

·         Identify potential accomplices of the suspect

·         Identify exactly what time and location a suspect or accomplice drove by a ground-based surveillance           camera

·         Dissect entire criminal networks in 3-4 days

One thing the cameras do not do is capture close up images of a person’s face. Suspects are typically not identified by their facial features, but rather by their movements and connections to vehicles and locations.

While in many cases the image evidence may not be accessed by law enforcement until several hours after it has been collected, the system has proven to be effective in near real time, or within minutes after a crime has occurred. During one demonstration flight over the city of Dayton, police officers on the ground received a radio call of a burglary occurring now. The system operator flying above the city checked his cameras and observed a white pickup truck leaving the scene. This information was relayed to police who were able to intercept the vehicle and make the arrest. The stolen property was located in the bed of the truck and the thief was positively identified by a witness. Thanks to the surveillance camera flying above the city, the suspect spent the next few days in the Montgomery County Jail instead of being able to continue his criminal enterprise.

In a similar case in 2012, also over Dayton Ohio, McNutt’s cameras captured a robbery suspect as he moved between his residence to three separate locations that he either cased or attempted to rob. At one of the locations the business owner pulled a gun and chased the suspect away. After one of the crimes the suspect was tracked to a gas station where the stations security camera caught a close up of his face. But police would not have known to check the station’s security cameras if he had not been tracked there by the surveillance system in the sky. This suspect also found himself behind bars at the Montgomery County Jail in Dayton instead of planning more robberies.

Persistent Surveillance systems is not the only company developing or offering such a product. Northrop Grumman has teamed up with Quest Aircraft to offer a complete surveillance package. By matching their camera system called the “Air Claw” with the Quest Kodiak single engine turboprop high wing airplane, they can offer their customers a complete aerial platform capable of tracking multiple targets at once while gathering both before and after (the crime) forensic data.

Northrop Grumman teamed up with Quest Kodiak to off the The Air Claw surveillance platform

Northrop Grumman teamed up with Quest Kodiak to off the The Air Claw surveillance platform

Anticipating there would be detractors with privacy concerns, McNutt, took the unusual step of working with the American Civil Liberties Union to draft his company’s privacy policy. This policy outlines the circumstances under which law enforcement or any other entity can access the data collected by his company’s cameras.

While McNutt concedes he is in business to sell his product,   he also is a true believer that systems such as the one developed by him can have a significant effect on the crime rate in any city that deploys the technology on a routine basis. McNutt points out that when the crime rate drops significantly property values go up, there is increased development and other community benefits such as better schools. He also believes that in the long term it could even reduce the incarceration rates as the system becomes a deterrent to criminals that know if they venture out to commit crime, they will be on camera.

While it is unlikely that a surveillance system such as the one described will ever fully replace the traditional police helicopter, particularly in cities or counties with existing helicopter programs, it could very well provide a much more affordable alternative to smaller government entities. And for the cities that can afford both, it could be an excellent add-on to an existing aviation unit for targeting violent crime in a specific area.