Persistent Surveillance Systems can watch 25 sq. miles—for hours.
On June 28, 2012, in Dayton, Ohio, police received reports of an attempted robbery. A man armed with a box cutter had just tried to rob the Annex Naughty N’ Nice adult bookstore. Next, a similar report came from a Subway sandwich shop just a few miles northeast of the bookstore.
Coincidentally, a local company named Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS) was flying a small Cessna aircraft 10,000 feet overhead at the time. The surveillance flight was loaded up with specialized cameras that could watch 25 square miles of territory, and it provided something no ordinary helicopter or police plane could: a Tivo-style time machine that could watch and record movements of every person and vehicle below.
After learning about the attempted robberies, PSS conducted frame-by-frame video analysis of the bookstore and sandwich shop and was able to show that exactly one car traveled between them. Further analysis showed that the suspect then moved on to a Family Dollar store in the northern part of the city, robbed it, stopped for gas—where his face was captured on video—and eventually returned home.
A man named Joseph Bucholtz was arrested the following month and pled guilty to three counts of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon and one count of robbery. In November 2012, he was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay $665 to the bookstore.
Though an all-seeing, always recording eye in the sky might sound dystopian, current PSS surveillance tech has real limitations. For now, the cameras can only shoot for a few hours at a time, only during the day, and sometimes just in black-and-white. When watching from 10,000 feet, PSS says that individuals are reduced to a single pixel—useful for tracking movements but not for identifying someone.
“You can’t tell if they’re red, white, green, or purple,” Ross McNutt, the company’s CEO, told Ars. And even if the half-meter resolution on his cameras got significantly better, McNutt said that he would prefer to fly higher and capture a larger area.
McNutt wants to be sensitive to people’s concerns, and PSS meets with the ACLU and other privacy activists as such. But he also wants to catch criminals. McNutt, who helped develop the technology when it was a military research project at the nearby Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) back in 2004, claims that his system has already proved its value.