US police have been testing an aerial surveillance system adapted from the surge in Iraq, by Monte Reel. Police have a very significant new capability that you might want to know about. Persistent surveillance of everything, from the air over a city, all day every day.
McNutt is an Air Force Academy graduate, physicist, and MIT-trained astronautical engineer who in 2004 founded the Air Force’s Center for Rapid Product Development. The Pentagon asked him if he could develop something to figure out who was planting the roadside bombs that were killing and maiming American soldiers in Iraq. In 2006 he gave the military Angel Fire, a wide-area, live-feed surveillance system that could cast an unblinking eye on an entire city.
The system was built around an assembly of four to six commercially available industrial imaging cameras, synchronized and positioned at different angles, then attached to the bottom of a plane. As the plane flew, computers stabilized the images from the cameras, stitched them together and transmitted them to the ground at a rate of one per second. This produced a searchable, constantly updating photographic map that was stored on hard drives. His elevator pitch was irresistible: “Imagine Google Earth with TiVo capability.”
The images weren’t perfect. Analysts on the ground could see individual cars moving through the streets, but they couldn’t tell what make or model they might be. Pedestrians were just pixelated dots; you couldn’t distinguish a man from a woman, or an Iraqi civilian from an American soldier. Individual recognition, however, wasn’t the point; any dot could be followed backward or forward in time, which opened up all sorts of investigative possibilities.
If a roadside bomb exploded while the camera was in the air, analysts could zoom in to the exact location of the explosion and rewind to the moment of detonation. Keeping their eyes on that spot, they could further rewind the footage to see a vehicle, for example, that had stopped at that location to plant the bomb. Then they could backtrack to see where the vehicle had come from, marking all of the addresses it had visited. They also could fast-forward to see where the driver went after planting the bomb — perhaps a residence, or a rebel hideout, or a stash house of explosives. More than merely identifying an enemy, the technology could identify an enemy network.
Now it is being experimentally deployed in a few US cities, and it can and has solved otherwise insoluble crimes. For example:
[In Baltimore] the police responded to the shooting of a 90-year-old woman and her 82-year-old brother, who’d been hit while walking in front of a bus stop on Clifton Avenue in the Western District. …
McNutt’s analysts called up the aerial images and began tracking vehicles leaving a busy shopping center across the street from the bus stop, where witnesses had placed the shooter. For about two hours, they mapped the routes of several cars leaving the parking lot, until a detective informed McNutt that the shooter probably had left the area on foot. Rewinding to the moment of the shooting, they quickly pinpointed a person who appeared to scramble away from the scene just after the gunshots.
He was little more than a faint, grainy dot with no identifying characteristics. After he crossed the parking lot, he walked past a Subway sandwich shop and proceeded down a hill behind the shopping center. He cut a corner to cross a vacant lot and ducked between two houses on a quiet residential street. … The suspect stopped briefly at the car before walking a few doors down and into a house.
While he was inside, a vehicle pulled up to the front of the house; a person exited the house, got in the car, and traveled about three miles to Bons Secours Hospital. The analysts tracked him into the emergency room entrance. Because the analysts had lost so much time while tracking the cars leaving the parking lot, all of the movements they were watching were a few hours old. When the police went to the emergency room, the hospital wouldn’t release any patient information. With no identifying information at hand, the trail seemed cold.
It wasn’t. The police later that day determined that the house the suspect may have entered before he went to the hospital belonged to the girlfriend of Carl Anthony Cooper, a man with a long criminal record. Additionally, they discovered that when the suspect walked away from the shopping center, he’d passed in front of a ground-based security camera. Accessing that footage and reviewing Cooper’s mug shots on file, they found a possible match. …
Two days after the shooting, the Baltimore Police Department posted an archived picture of Cooper on its Facebook page, labeling him the city’s “Public Enemy #1.” It also posted the footage captured by the ground-based security camera, which showed him calmly carrying what appeared to be a bag of food in one hand and his cell phone in the other.
The footage baffled Facebook users, who couldn’t figure out how it implicated Cooper. In the comments section, one wrote that if the man on camera really was the shooter, he surely would have dropped his food and run. Another commenter typed: “Not saying this isn’t the suspect but what is being seen that we, the public, isn’t seeing???” Finally someone posted, “Can a detective chime in and let us know what additional information leads you to believe that he is the suspect?”
No one from the department responded. But Cooper was eventually apprehended by federal marshals in North Carolina and sent to Baltimore, where he remains in custody. The police held a press conference to announce Cooper’s capture, saying he’d face charges for the shootings, including attempted murder and assault. Nothing was said about the surveillance plane.