Plane-mounted cameras act as Sky+ for crime investigation (Wired UK)


Ars TechnicaOn June 28, 2012, in Dayton, Ohio, police
received reports of an attempted robbery. A man armed with a box
cutter had just tried to rob the Annex Naughty N’ Nice adult
bookstore. Next, a similar report came from a Subway sandwich
shop just a few miles northeast of the bookstore.

Coincidentally, a local company named Persistent Surveillance Systems
(PSS) was flying a small Cessna aircraft 10,000 feet overhead at
the time. The surveillance flight was loaded up with specialised
cameras that could watch 25 square miles of territory, and it
provided something no ordinary helicopter or police plane could: a
Tivo-style time machine that could watch and record movements of
every person and vehicle below.

After learning about the attempted robberies, PSS conducted
frame-by-frame video analysis of the bookstore and sandwich shop
and was able to show that exactly one car traveled between them.
Further analysis showed that the suspect then moved on to a Family
Dollar store in the northern part of the city, robbed it, stopped
for gas — where his face was captured on video — and eventually
returned home.

A man named Joseph Bucholtz was arrested the following month and
pled guilty to three counts of aggravated robbery with a deadly
weapon and one count of robbery. In November 2012, he was sentenced
to five years in prison and ordered to pay $665 to the

Persistent Surveillance Systems

Though an all-seeing, always recording eye in the sky might
sound dystopian, current PSS surveillance tech has real
limitations. For now, the cameras can only shoot for a few hours at
a time, only during the day, and sometimes just in black-and-white.
When watching from 10,000 feet, PSS says that individuals are
reduced to a single pixel — useful for tracking movements but not
for identifying someone.

“You can’t tell if they’re red, white, green, or
purple,” Ross McNutt, the company’s CEO, told Ars. And even if
the half-meter resolution on his cameras got significantly better,
McNutt said that he would prefer to fly higher and capture a larger

McNutt wants to be sensitive to people’s concerns, and PSS meets
with the ACLU and other privacy activists as such. But he also
wants to catch criminals. McNutt, who helped develop the technology
when it was a military research project at the nearby Air Force Institute of
Technology (AFIT) back in 2004, claims that his system has already
proved its value. A visual timeline of the Bucholtz case has been
used numerous times in PSS presentations, but McNutt said that his cameras have seen
far worse.

“We have witnessed 34 people being murdered within our imaged
areas and been able to track people to and from those scenes,” he
said. “The people who confessed on being captured with assistance
from our imagery confessed for a total of 75 murders. Many of the
people confessed once captured to many more murders than we tracked
them to.”

Much of the company’s work has actually come from Mexico, where
PSS helped make the most of its “significant captures.” (The
company’s work there “was done very quietly to protect us and our
customer from retribution,” McNutt adds.)

Now, after years of short-term contracts, the retired Air Force
Lieutenant Colonel is lobbying 10 US cities — he won’t name them,
apart from Chicago — for longer contracts. He’s also dangling a
sizeable carrot in front of them: a new analysis centre that would
have “hundreds” of jobs and would act as a command centre for all
of the company’s operations nationwide.

Despite past efforts in cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and
Cleveland and at events like the 2014 Indianapolis 500 car race,
PSS says it currently has no active contracts inside the United
States. McNutt is increasingly mystified at cities that won’t hire
his eye-in-the-sky surveillance firm.

“We have hundreds of politicians that say crime is their number
one issue, and no it’s not,” McNutt said. “If it was true, they
wouldn’t stand for 36,000 crimes a year (per city), worth a $1
billion a year. It shows up in lower housing prices and it shows in
people not wanting to move there. If you could get rid of the crime
stigma you would see house prices rise and businesses move there. I
am frustrated that politicians don’t have the leadership to do

That’s in part because tech like this — to put it bluntly –
creeps people out.

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