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NASA Technology for Policing

Written by Christy Whitehead

Two members of NASA have turned their eyes away from looking at the skies and towards law enforcement cases. From bombings, homeland security threats, and child abductions to verifying the real Saddam Hussein, a video enhancement system developed by NASA is proving to be a valuable law enforcement tool.

The most recent cases in the news involving the joining forces of police and NASA were the Space Shuttle Columbia accident investigation and the abduction case in Sarasota, FL of Carlie Brucia at a car wash.

The 11-year-old was abducted when she took a shortcut on her way home from a friend’s house. The shortcut, through a carwash, was captured by a security camera and showed the girl being led away by an unknown man wearing a mechanic’s shirt with a name patch on the chest. The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department asked NASA scientists to help them make the security image tapes clearer in hopes of gathering more information about the identification of the man.

David Hathaway and Paul Meyer, scientists at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, used their expertise and equipment for analyzing satellite video images of space to create a crime fighting tool called Video Image Stabilization and Registration (VISAR). This converts dark, jumpy images captured by security cameras, video cameras, and even police car cameras into clear, stable images that can hopefully reveal more clues about a crime.

Initial enhancement that was done showed that there were tattoos on both of his forearms according to Major Kevin Gooding, of the Sarasota County, FL Sheriff’s Department. It was not clear enough to tell exactly what those tattoos were and that is when the NASA team stepped in.

Need Brings About Invention

VISAR was first used by law enforcement after the 1996 bombing at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta that killed two and injured hundreds more. The FBI had obtained a homemade video of the bombing, but the tape was taken by a handheld recorder at night and was of poor quality. The Southeast Bomb Task Force of the FBI asked if anyone at NASA could help improve the video’s clarity.

Hathaway and Meyer stepped up to the plate. Meyer’s job at NASA is to process weather satellite images and Hathaway’s job is to use video stabilization techniques to enhance pictures of the sun. The two felt that they could use similar NASA technology to assist the FBI in their case. The scientists had little more than 13 seconds worth of bombing tape to work with—or about 400 frames. After a long process of trial and error, they were eventually able to stabilize, sharpen, and brighten the images. NASA said the results revealed important details about the bomb and the explosion.

“At NASA, we routinely take satellite images of storm clouds and enhance them to see what is going on in the atmosphere,” Meyer said. “Looking for clues about what is happening in a storm is similar to being a detective and finding out what took place at a crime scene.”

Hathaway also helped enhance security camera videotape made during the kidnapping of a Minnesota teenager. In an intensive effort, the FBI and police worked with Hathaway to identify the abductor and try to find the teenager. Her killer has since been tried and convicted. The video was key evidence used in his capture.

How VISAR Works

VISAR helps to stabilize images to create a clearer video sequence. The NASA Science News reported that current techniques in sharpening images, “usually just sharpen the edges of an image, without taking into account how the blurring occurred. Zooming in, for instance, makes an image larger and more spread out. And these techniques only work on one frame at a time, so the effects of video noise, or snow, cannot be accounted for.

Such sharpening techniques can bring out the noise, distorting the image even further. Because VISAR allows you to combine several video images together, noise can be averaged out among the frames. The more images you can combine, the greater the corrective power of VISAR.”

Hathaway and Meyer’s efforts in correcting the FBI video surpassed existing image-correction technology. The video correction methods currently in use could not compensate for the effects of zoom or tilt, as Hathaway and Meyer did. By steadying and reducing the noise in the images, they brought out a wealth of information, revealing new, previously obscured details.

VISAR has a computer algorithm that corrects for zoom, tilt, and jitter. Computer and video images are made up of tiny squares of color called pixels. By registering on an object in the image, the pixels from several video frames can be lined up together. This results in a steadier video.

VISAR can register an object of interest in a sequence of images to within a tenth of a pixel in position, a part in 1,000 in magnification, and 1/30th of a degree in orientation. Each case the team has worked on has allowed them to refine and improve the VISAR technology.

Other Applications

While the technology has been particularly useful to law enforcement, Hathaway told the NASA Science News that the biggest potential market of VISAR could be average citizens who would use VISAR to improve the quality of homemade movies.

Like the Atlanta bombing situation, those home videos could also be very helpful in the event of a crime or catastrophe.

VISAR was used to enhance launch images of the Columbia space shuttle, allowing NASA engineers to see a chunk of foam insulation fall from the shuttle’s fuel tank and hit the spacecraft’s wing. Originally dismissed as a potential safety threat, the foam insulation was later blamed for the disintegration of the Columbia over Texas on February 1, 2003, killing seven astronauts.

Licensing for Law Enforcement

Intergraph Government Solutions of Huntsville, AL has a licensing agreement with NASA for the use of the VISAR technology. The company has installed VISAR in its Video Analyst System, which features broadcast-quality video editing and enhancement for law enforcement and security companies. The Video Analyst System is a state-of-the-art graphics workstation that delivers tools necessary to capture, analyze, enhance, and edit nearly any type of video, making it ideal for forensic and intelligence analysis.

The Video Analyst System uses a Microsoft Windows operating system and an Intel Pentium 4 processor to provide rapid rendering and editing. The Intergraph Web site states that by using the Microsoft platform, the system is easier for officers to pick up on and remember how to use, even after periods of non-use.

The Video Analyst System 210 has a price of $19,995. The company has a more expensive system that has more memory and a flat screen as well as other features. The company also sells a portable laptop unit. Several departments have purchased the equipment, including the Chicago-area South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association. This law enforcement association pooled together to buy Video Analyst and 15 portable units, making the system available to 43 municipalities in Illinois.

In 2000, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC Police used the system to identify a triggerman in a murder. Witnesses were able to identify the man by his clothing, but the suspects disagreed about who was wearing what clothes during the crime, making it difficult for police to pinpoint the triggerman. Tapes from a liquor store were analyzed with the Video Analyst System and provided the answer.

In 2002, the Escambia County, FL Sheriff’s Department used the system to track down an arsonist. A gas station video had the evidence needed to locate the arson, but the video would have been useless without the VISAR technology. The video helped tie the suspect and his white pickup to the crime scene.

“Until recently we would not have been able to do to much with blurred video or tapes with noise lines running through them,” said Rob Lutz of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office. “Video Analyst System helped us bring the suspect out of the darkness. And we were able to identify and locate the vehicle.”

A Clearer Image for Law Enforcement

While law enforcement often uses video to identify suspects, to investigate a crime scene, or to spot identifying characteristics, VISAR could also be used to steady images of car chases shot from inside a moving police car, enabling police to focus on a license plate number or even on an image of the driver’s face reflected in the rear-view mirror.

VISAR could also aid in identifying faces in a crowd—particularly useful at arson scenes. VISAR could also be used to analyze onlookers at several different arson sites to identify repeat visitors. Simply put, the police can use NASA technology to put murderers behind bars.

Christy Whitehead is a freelance writer/photographer based out of Jacksonville, FL. She worked for a time in public relations and has done freelance work for a daily newspaper for seven years. She can be reached at WritingArticles@aol.com.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2005

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