July 12, 2009
LANCASTER – In what they say is the first step toward a new era in law enforcement techniques, city officials are testing a small airplane mounting a high-tech surveillance camera to help fight crime.
The aerial surveillance system features high-definition video recording technology that is capable of viewing people or objects
several miles away and whose images can later be magnified to identify the individuals, officials said.
“You never know when you are being watched or followed. It would be stupid to commit a crime. You see it with such detail,” said Mayor R. Rex Parris, who took a ride last week in a camera-equipped airplane with pilot Dick Rutan.
[efoods]“I have every hope that Lancaster will be the first city to deploy it. I’ve never been so excited about anything.”
Such surveillance technology is used by the military, NASA and a limited number of other federal agencies, but Lancaster would be the first entity in the United States to use it for general public safety, officials said.
Parris asked Rutan, a Mojave Air and Space Port commissioner who is famous for piloting the Voyager aircraft around the world nonstop and unrefueled in 1986, for assistance in developing the concept of placing an “eye in the sky” over Lancaster.
At first, Rutan looked into deploying the camera on an unmanned aircraft to patrol the city’s skies, but that proved to be too expensive and faced too many difficulties with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Using a conventional small plane “solves all kinds of problems,” Rutan said. “It’s a lot cheaper to have a pilot on board than a drone.”
For the first demonstration flight last week, the camera was mounted on a Cessna Caravan, but Rutan is researching smaller general aviation aircraft for the aerial platform.
The camera is an example of technology developed for and used by the military making a transition to civilian applications, Rutan said.
“I’m pretty impressed with the quality of the imagery you’re able to get, day and night,” he said. “I think it would be a terrific tool for law enforcement.”
“I’m really excited to be part of it,” Rutan said.
During the demonstration flight, the system was used to observe a car accident, a city announcement said.
The camera detected the collision due to the heat produced by the vehicles, and within seconds focused on the area and provided a clear picture of all vehicles and people in the area.
The mayor said he can’t predict how long it will take to make the “eye in the sky” operational.
City officials said in the announcement that the trial flight exceeded their expectations, but called it just the first step in the process.
“This demonstration is a major milestone in a project that will improve the quality of life in the Antelope Valley,” City Manager Mark Bozigian said in the announcement.
“To put it simply, it works. The next step is to make it operational, which includes financial considerations.”