- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

Whether it is being used to record a highway patrol chase on a California freeway or a police surveillance mission, computer technology is bringing high-definition images down to earth.

The pictures are so sharp, says Alan Purwin of Van Nuys, Calif., that you can read the license plate on a vehicle from 7,000 feet in the air. That kind of detail can either make for great television or serious crime stopping.

Mr. Purwin is an Indiana-born entrepreneur and helicopter pilot. He owns Helinet Aviation, a firm that leases helicopters, and Cineflex, which develops the systems that capture and transmit the video.

Most recently, Mr. Purwin and his colleagues achieved some recognition for their work during Hurricane Katrina, showing images of levees collapsing and the resulting flood damage.

Helinet choppers, because of the quality of their images, became the “pool” helicopter video feed for all the major networks. And unlike the Hollywood movies his firm has also worked on, the devastation of the hurricane was real.

“Flying around the affected areas from Katrina was different from anything I’ve experienced in my life,” Mr. Purwin said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Their helicopter was equipped with a gimbaled camera mount developed by Cineflex that can do a couple of interesting things. One is to accommodate very long lenses, which is the basis for the license plate-reading claim.

The other is that the camera pivots in just about every way, making it extremely useful for following action on the ground, such as when a driver involved in a chase jumps out and starts running.

The other technology innovations are more related to computers: a portable PC running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows CE operating system controls video matters inside the aircraft, including the compression and transmission of the high-definition images, which are 300 megabit streams that drop down to 19.3 megabits, saving a lot of transmission bandwidth.

The video compression issue isn’t minor, Mr. Purwin said. If an analog video signal has some problems, a viewer might see “snow” in the picture. In high-definition television, if there are lost bits of data, the whole picture is lost.

Outside, a gyroscope-based antenna system, also computer guided, locks onto a ground station so images are received. On the ground, the signal is restored to its high-definition format.

Such capabilities will be important as television stations nationwide switch to HDTV, but they can also be used by military and law-enforcement agencies to monitor activities on the ground.

The future holds other technologies that will likely aid law enforcement, said Ron Magocsi, Helinet Aviation’s engineering director. One challenge is the limited microwave spectrum available. Mr. Magocsi, a longtime television news engineer, is looking at other ways of getting the signal to where it needs to go.

I’m impressed that a Windows CE device can play traffic cop in the midst of this hardware, but it’s also worth noting that the Cineflex and Helinet firms’ technology could have some significant impact on what we watch as entertainment and what law enforcement watches to keep us safe. More information can be found at http://www.helinet.com.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com or visit http://www.kellner.us.

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