Aerial surveillance gets computer boost

October 31, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

By poking a touch-screen computer, crews aboard Maryland State Police helicopters can now calculate more efficient flight plans to add inspections of dams, bridges and other "critical infrastructure" to their daily missions.

The choppers were equipped last month with hand-held tablet computers linked to navigation satellites, digital maps and databases with the locations of hospitals, chemical factories and other sensitive facilities. That allows airborne troopers to quickly find and patrol such sites looking for damage or terrorist threats.

Called the Critical Infrastructure Inspection Management System, the technology was developed by the state police in cooperation with the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel.

"We're proud to be the first agency in the United States to use this technology. We won't be the last," Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, superintendent of the state police, said as troopers unveiled the technology at Martin State Airport.

The new system replaces the stacks of notes, photocopies and road maps that flight crews have used since Sept. 11, 2001, to identify, find and inspect installations on their critical-infrastructure patrols.

Once in the air, the crew can call up a Google Earth-style map of the region, said Sgt. Chad Gainey of the State Police Aviation Command. A few pokes on the touch-sensitive screen reveal the helicopter's position, flight path, speed, destination and distance left to travel.

Also in view on a demonstration video, just to the right of the chopper's flight path, is a red dome. It identifies the location of Brighton Dam at Triadelphia Reservoir near Clarksville, in Howard County, which is one of many structures included in the computer's critical infrastructure list.

The screen gives the pilot a range and heading to reach the reservoir, sparing the crew the distraction of making the calculations. There is also a photo of the dam to help crew members identify it once they get closer and to help them spot irregularities.

Once over the dam, Gainey said, "we're looking for ... personnel and anomalies that are not supposed to be there ... any kind of suspicious activity, things like a tractor-trailer at a reservoir with a tube running into the water."

Flight crews also answer on-screen queries designed to assure the security of that facility or to address questions uploaded by public safety agencies. The crew's replies are later downloaded for analysis, eventually by the Department of Homeland Security.

The tablet also keeps track of nearby air traffic, providing an extra set of "eyes" for a busy crew.

The technology was funded by Homeland Security. It grew out of a program at APL to evaluate a new air traffic control technology that is scheduled to replace the Federal Aviation Administration's ground-based radar system in 2013. Based on software developed at APL, the new FAA system will use radio-transmitted global positioning data and aircraft identification information.

Crews who once juggled infrastructure lists, photos and maps can find all that information and more in the new computers. The tablet screens give them with a simple, systematic platform for navigating to important sites, conducting aerial inspections, gathering requested intelligence and forwarding data to analysts on the ground.

"It's targeted for Maryland but designed so any law enforcement agency can use it," said Jose Latimer, who oversees the homeland protection business area for the APL. It will also be adaptable for use in cars, on boats or by personnel on foot.

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