The high price of a bird's eye view

Making the most out of an aerial unit

     The tricky part, Alpaugh says, is getting that downlink to the ground and disseminating it to where the agency needs and wants it. "People a lot of times may think we simply just downlink specifically to the ground officer that's next to the incident," he says. While this is possible, sometimes the agency might want the feed sent to headquarters — 20 miles to 100 miles away — where it can be put into a network and distributed how they choose from there.

     "It's up to [an agency's] imagination," Alpaugh adds.

     However, this capability also leads to another trouble: using the same frequency as the news media. This creates an unfortunate race to the scene, one in which law enforcement shouldn't feel rushed to capture this digital flag for public safety.

     St. Louis chose to avoid this issue: its TFOs connect with the ground by radio, directly informing officers of the situation as it progresses. Currently, Los Angeles is looking to go over its local news media's metaphoric digital head in the progress of upgrading its fleet to a higher megahertz frequency to give law enforcement and the media the ability to act independently.

     With the advent of high definition (HD) technologies, sometimes the issue is what the message includes, as well as how it's getting to the ground. If the TFO transmits the video feed, air support now has the option to upgrade its bird's eye view with a better pair of glasses.

     In live demos, Alpaugh exhibits the possibilities of what HD can offer officers. He displays imagery from surveillance 3,000 feet in the air and shows that commanders could then recognize the person and see that the item in the suspect's hand is not a cell phone but a weapon, and the tattoo on his left forearm.

     "If anybody needs that detail, it's law enforcement," he adds. "You can more easily make life-saving tactical decisions based on higher detail imagery if you have it than if you don't."

     A higher-resolution feed coming in to commanders, officers, mobile command units or headquarters means a larger data size. Alpaugh's Helinet suggests agencies compress the footage and use a microwave downlink system to disseminate the information. According to Wisdom, the St. Louis Metro Air Support Unit is currently researching such a system.

     A downlink system must consist of at least one receive site and have the capability to transmit secure video. In his experience, Alpaugh goes beyond and looks at how the agency will steer that receive antenna to track the helicopter with automatic tracking technology, how that information is downloaded into the station and displayed onto HD monitors, how the agency wishes to record the video, and whether it wants to send the signal through an IP stream. "That's how electronic news gathering works," he says. "Television stations can have multiple receive sites to simultaneously bring in [the video] from microwave trucks on the ground and the helicopters.

     "There are so many details that make the difference between [the equipment] becoming successful and it becoming hanger trash."

The human influence

     No matter how high tech the equipment, getting the right man in the cockpit can make all the difference. High-tech devices do not automatically make the mission a success; most of aerial support can be done through the initiative of the TFO. "Most of our surveillance is done just by looking out the window," Miller says.

     "The key to success of aerial surveillance, just like the key to successful police work on the ground, is having the right person in position — the motivated person that is going to be out there looking for the criminal on a regular basis," he adds. "Technology in the cockpit can enhance a pilot's performance and can make it so they can do more things, but you have to have that right individual in the cockpit."

     Another part of the successful mission is training that "right" individual with the right tools for the job. For example, Los Angeles has an extensive initial and continuous training program. LAPD starts its pilots with a 200-hour course, and TFOs a four-month training program. Of the four months, the trainee spends one month on "loan" for the department, which causes an 85-percent wash-out rate. Afterward, the trainee must pass an additional three months of on-the-job instruction. The department also puts on a 40-hour one-week police officer standards of training certified class, but it is not required for the program.

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