The Value is in the Data
LPR systems, regardless of the manufacturer, share several similarities; they use infrared video cameras and compare the captured data against a known database of wanted numbers. LPR systems also have the ability to populate databases with their collected data. In early 2006, few law enforcement agencies were interested in what they could do with the large amounts of data collected by LPR systems. That an officer could process a thousand of plates a shift and find a few stolen vehicles in the dark was more than enough to justify the systems. At the end of the shift, many agencies just simply deleted the non-stolen reads.
The rationale for this was three-fold. First, the data wasn’t viewed as important; if there had been a hit on a stolen vehicle, it would have been dealt with the moment it was recognized, so there was no need to keep the non-stolen data.
Second, the non-stolen data was viewed as important but potentially volatile and therefore should be deleted as soon as possible. Individual advocacy groups like the ACLU and civil libertarians had at this point given LPR systems their weakest, tacit approval. The systems were “equal opportunity employers,” looking only at license plates and not at the race of the person behind the wheel. But as with any collection of data about individuals, there was the potential for abuse. It was probably just as well to delete the data. A third rationale was simply that the agencies didn’t know what they could do with the non-stolen data, so why save it?
Today, the applications of LPR for the officer on the street have expanded beyond simply looking for stolen vehicles or plates. Databases for scofflaw violators, wanted persons, narcotics interdiction, and gang and terrorist watchlists are routinely being integrated into LPR systems. The trend to connect various databases to LPR systems has inspired many officials to keep the data collected by these systems for future data mining.
Because a majority of criminal behavior is connected to the use of automobiles, the ability to identify the time and location of the license capture becomes a valuable tool for many aspects of law enforcement. If, for example, a burglary is called into 9-1-1 and the units arriving on scene and those in the surrounding area are equipped with LPR systems, their collective data could create both a suspect list and a potential witness list for the crime.
Similarly, if a series of burglaries occurred, the data collected from LPR systems in the area at the time of the burglaries could be combined, or “mined” to see if any common vehicles were in proximity to the crimes and create a narrower suspect list or better profile. It is not difficult to foresee a future where the data collected from LPR systems becomes more valuable to agencies after the fact than to the officer’s who originally collected it.
Fixing the Mobile Camera
The mobile LPR systems that are the focus of so much interest currently in the U.S. are actually derived from fixed systems that have been in use Europe and other parts of the world for decades. Fixed LPR systems were first deployed in the U.S. along the borders and in parking lots. But interestingly, as mobile systems are being improved and increasingly implemented, more agencies are returning to LPR’s roots and deploying fixed systems.
Technologically, deploying a fixed LPR system is much easier than a mobile system. On the U.S. border, at a port of entry for example, the lanes of travel are well defined and can be augmented with lighting systems, which generally guarantees the optimal conditions for capturing a license plate. Mobile LPR, on the other hand with its unpredictable conditions of road, weather, lighting, angle of attack and vehicle speed variables is a much greater challenge. Two years ago, mobile LPR with its high-speed captures was being touted by manufacturers and agencies alike as the technology of choice, but today, virtually every manufacturer is highlighting its ability to “fix” its system to poles and traffic signals.
When it comes to shear volume of license captures, fixed LPR systems win hands down. Mounted on a traffic signal at a busy intersection, a well-place, fixed LPR system can capture nearly 100% of the traffic within its field of vision. Even the best mobile systems can’t claim that distinction. But there’s one drawback: there’s no patrol vehicle set to respond if a vehicle of interest passes through the monitored intersection.
The advantage of the mobile LPR system is one of immediacy. If an officer is notified of a hit, he sees a color image of the vehicle and proceeds with a traffic stop. The reaction is immediate. The ability to react to the data more effectively gives mobile LPR an advantage that their fixed brethren cannot claim. But when it comes to data mining, both systems are equally important.
If an agency wanted to generate a list of the vehicles that passed southbound away from a major crime scene during a given time window, a fixed system would be best equipped to provide the data, but only a mobile system could have driven around the crime scene itself and processed all of the plates parked and moving about within the area.
Similarly, if a “geo-fence” has been established around a school, preventing sexual predators from driving within a set distance of the school, a fixed system would be able to provide immediate alerts to agency official of an incursion, but only an officer in a mobile LPR equipped vehicle would be able to effect an arrest of the subject at the scene.
As LPR technology is more widely adopted, law enforcement agencies and departments will likely experiment with both fixed and mobile systems to see which makes the most sense for their community and criminal activity.
One of the more interesting trends in the LPR industry is the buying and selling among several of the leading companies. No fewer than four of the largest LPR vendors have experienced some sort restructuring in the past 18 months. This is indicative of the relative youth of the industry and the intense interest the field is generating among investor groups.
Elsag North America, maker of the prevalent MPH-900, is now wholly owned by Italian-based Elsag, after its former partner Remington was purchased by a New York investment firm. Tennessee-based, PIPS Technology was purchased in August 2007 by well-known vehicle supplier and Illinois-based Federal Signal in its interest in diversifying into different law enforcement sectors.
Platescan, formerly a division of Civica Software was separated to form its own company after interest and likely funding from the CIA. And Canadian-based AutoVu was acquired by another Canadian firm, mega-company Genetec. All of the purchases, positioning and restructuring reveal a growth industry with the perceived ability to generate significant revenue.
At a time when most of the LPR companies are pursuing hard-mounted, semi-portable products, one company is going in a different direction. In 2006 INEX Technologies of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Zamir Recognition Systems of Jerusalem, Israel, joined to form INEX/ZAMIR.
Known internationally for their fixed high-speed LPR applications (tollways and parking lot access) INEX/ZAMIR has opted for a highly portable, handheld LPR design. Instead of requiring an expensive vehicle upfit, one cable of the model LY-300 simply plugs into a DC power port and the other cable into a laptop. Beyond portability, another added benefit is cost; the LY-300 is nearly half the price of the other LPR systems.
In the 2006 article, LPR systems were predicted to be integrated with other existing patrol systems. This has already come to pass with the integrations of in-car video with LPR systems. The Platescan LPR system now integrates with Panasonic’s Toughbook Arbitrator mobile video recording system. When not in use to record video of traffic stops, the system can be set to search for license plates.
Other integrations will continue, as well as new adaptation for the systems themselves. And as the industry settles and more agencies make purchases, the cost of the technology will continue to fall. Today LPR systems are currently deployed in less than 3% of law enforcement patrol vehicles in the United States, but through their own merits, they are quickly changing the way law enforcement does business.
Thomas M. Manson is the owner of Police Technical LLC and the technology editor for LAW and ORDER magazine. He speaks nationally on technology and law enforcement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. license plate recognition