WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
It’s like combining Google Maps with Tivo, authorities can watch an entire city with just a one camera.
An unblinking sentinel will watch over the Olympic Games from high above Rio de Janiero this summer. No, not the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, but a camera system called Simera that rides on a tethered balloon and can monitor an entire city from a single vantage point giving an unprecedented level of security.
Created by Logos Technologies, this is the first time Simera’s core technology, which American military forces have used to watch Iraq and Afghanistan from above, has been exported. Brazil has ordered four to cover the Games.
“We create a Google Earth view of the city and update it every second,” said John Marion, President of Logos.
“And we store everything, so we can go through it like TiVo.”
Simera combines a wide angle view with the ability to zoom in on any point at will. The operator can open up as many zoom windows as needed to follow events on the ground with enough detail to track vehicles and people while still getting the big picture from its 13 cameras. Although the system captures gigabytes of data every second, the operator needs only to see a tiny fraction of it – about one ten thousandth, Marion says.
While the human operators can only watch one area at a time in the near future the system will be able to employ Machine Vision and Artificial Intelligence to automatically sift through petabytes of footage in seconds, making it an invaluable forensic resource.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Simera is how small it is. At just 40lb’s it carries a whole suite of instruments that will surveil the whole city of Rio during the 2016 Olympics – Wide Area Motion Imagery (WAMI), has come a long way.
Tivo for cities
Strange as it may seem now, in our era of constant surveillance, it took a while for the idea of an all-seeing aerial camera that records everything to be accepted. When Marion was developing the original version, known as Constant Hawk, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he had trouble finding support.
“I spent a lot of time going round Washington trying to explain what it was and why it was important,” he says.
According to Marion, it was only when the threat from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) escalated that the value of this type of system became obvious. After an explosion, Constant Hawk surveillance meant that it was possible to rewind the scene.
Say it was a car bomb. The analysts could go backward in the footage and see where the car came from, and where the driver went afterwards. If it was an IED, they could spot the people laying it as well as the trigger man – invariably the only person walking casually away from the scene. Once a suspect is located, they can be followed backward and forward in time.
Video analysts have used this technology to locate insurgent safe houses that were then raided, and to ID individuals and vehicles involved in terrorist networks. Constant Hawk was a key part of Task Force ODIN’s successful campaign to reduce IED attacks. ODIN (Observe, Detect, Identify, and Neutralize) was launched in Iraq to stem the tide of IED attacks, and with the aid of a variety of high-tech sensors, they succeeded in taking out several thousand bombers.
Constant Hawk was flown on manned aircraft – Short 360-300s in Iraq and MC-12Q Libertys in Afghanistan. Although it was a great success, Marion says, doing surveillance this way makes for very boring (and expensive) flying. It costs a lot of money to keep pilots up in the air to supply constant coverage. A smaller sensor package that could be mounted up high, could keep a lookout 24/7, and that did not require human pilots would be a surveillance breakthrough.
“The idea was to make it smaller and lighter and need less power, so it could be flown in any platform,” he says.
Using smaller, cheaper, and more powerful commercial electronics, Logos downsized the 1,500 lb Constant Hawk into the 40 lb Simera and a family of other sensors. These include Kestrel, the US version of Kestrel which also has night-vision capability (this technology is export-controlled) and Redkite, a version designed for small drones.
Putting it all together can be a challenge. Indeed, Marion describes the engineers who integrate the whole package as “artists.” The advantage is that using commercially available components means the system can be easily upgraded as better cameras, processors, and storage become available.
Software over pixels
With a mass surveillance system like Simera, you might think the more pixels the better. But Marion says his team has discovered that the ideal pixel count is in the hundreds of millions of pixels, not billions. It turns out that increasing resolution does not help spot the bad guys – improved software does. Marion cannot talk about all the system’s capabilities, but they may include some of the known techniques used by smart surveillance cameras to reduce the operator’s workload. These can identify potentially suspicious behaviors by automatically flagging people trespassing in forbidden areas or loitering too long in certain places.
You can do a lot with a few million pixels and some smart software. Simera can track anyone in the field of view forward and backward in time. Just click on an individual and find out where they were an hour or two hours previously. And the system is also useful in real time. If police are chasing a gang of thieves who scatter in crowded streets, the Simera operator can wind back a few seconds and trace exactly where each of the suspects has gone and guide the police on the ground to find them.
Simera will help with security at Rio, but future customers may have very different uses in mind. The system may prove equally valuable in disaster relief situations, where a single aerostat with Simera could provide wide area coverage and real-time situational awareness. Finding people and identifying who was where was a real problem in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There were never enough helicopters to meet needs, despite the fact that some 350 were deployed along with 70 fixed-wing aircraft. Today, one Simera could replace fleets of helos.
As technology progresses, future systems are likely to be even smaller and cheaper. Simera is still in the million-dollar price range, but its descendants will get steadily more affordable. Then you might see constant surveillance rolled out to protect game parks from poachers, to manage crowds at sporting events, or to secure industrial facilities.
Of course, not everyone wants an eye in the sky peering down on everything they do. The Rio Olympics may be an important test of just how important the all-seeing cameras are for ensuring security, and whether they’re worth the erosion of privacy.