Grand Theft Auto Meets Robocop
Wired | June 18 2005
An automatic license-plate reader that can scan 500 license plates an hour looking for stolen vehicles underwent its first field tests by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department last week.
Using character-recognition technology developed for the Italian Post Office to read postal addresses, four robot eyes in the course of one night queried more than 12,000 license plates, recovered seven stolen cars and resulted in three arrests.
Two of the arrests and one of the recovered stolen autos came about when a police cruiser with a plate scanner pulled up outside an L.A. parole office. A pair of parolees rolled up in a vehicle that was immediately -- and automatically -- identified as stolen.
"Criminals are not real smart," said Cmdr. Sid Heal in a report. "Their P.O. (parole officer) came out and saw all the commotion and told us the parolees were his. After relaying the fact they were in a stolen car, the P.O. -- on the spot -- said, 'They're violated.'"
The Mobile Plate Hunter 900 is a new product from Remington-Elsag Law Enforcement Systems, a partnership between U.S. gun manufacturer Remington and Italian postal-technology company Elsag.
Looking like a foot-long, aluminum teardrop bolted to a patrol car's light bar, the Mobile Plate Hunter contains two infrared cameras that can read between 500 and 800 plates an hour, the manufacturer said.
The system works at "patrol car speeds," optimally at about 35 mph. It can scan the plates of vehicles almost anywhere on the road.
"We read them coming at us. We read them going by us. We read them parked," said Mark Windover, president of Remington-Elsag.
The Mobile Plate Hunter is currently being evaluated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and several other law enforcement agencies nationwide, but Remington-Elsag declined to say which ones.
In 2004, there were 253,041 stolen vehicles in California and 67,722 stolen vehicles in Los Angeles County, according to the California Highway Patrol.
In the L.A. test, scanned plates were checked against a list of vehicles reported stolen in the California Stolen Vehicle System.
The Plate Hunter is based on optical character-recognition technology originally developed in Italy for sorting letters and parcels.
"Five to six years ago (Elsag) had really perfected postal sorting and realized that if they could read a postcard handwritten at 90 miles per hour, they could read license plates," said Windover.
A similar system has been used by the Italian carabinieri for the last three years, and is mounted on 3,000 Italian law enforcement vehicles.
Remington-Elsag has also developed a fixed system. Mounted on the side of the road, the reader can scan vehicles moving at up to 75 mph, with recognition rate in tests exceeding 95 percent, the company claimed.
Windover said false positives are "virtually nonexistent."
"In California, where we have the most experience, false positives are rare, occurring less than 1 in 100,000 reads," he said. "Importantly, 100 percent of all alarms from any read are verified by the operating law enforcement officer prior to a traffic stop or other action."
The L.A. County Sheriff Department's Heal said that the license plate reader improved spotting stolen cars by "an order of magnitude."
"This makes us more efficient than we've been in the past," he said. "We would never check 12,000 license plates the conventional way."
Currently, officers have to read plates and call them in to a communications center to verify if the car is stolen. Because it is so cumbersome, officers tend only to check vehicles they are already suspicious of.
By contrast, the Mobile Plate Hunter requires no attention from officers in the patrol car.
"It doesn't require the driver to do anything," Heal said.