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Commercial Cameras on UAVs Take Flight for Law Enforcement

The military too is interested in commercial cameras for use in drones

As use of unmanned aerial vehicles grows among law enforcement and the military, the use of commercial cameras on those aircraft also is expanding, according to experts and knowledgeable observers.

Both law enforcement and the military are selecting “commercial off-the-shelf” cameras when they order UAVs, said Michael Blades, a retired Air Force pilot who is now an aerospace defense analyst for the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

The choice of camera is based primarily on mission and weight, according to Blades, who helped write a report on that issue — “U.S. DoD Commercial Off-the-Shelf Aircraft Market” — for the firm.

How that is done is a client tells a UAV-company representative how the drone will be used, according to Blades. Basically, a client will say, “this is what we need a UAV to be able to do” — which means that is what the camera needs to do — and the companies respond by providing a list of cameras that meet those requirements, he explained. For most UAVs it is “pretty easy” to install any digital camera needed because of the gimbal platforms available, he said.

That the military is interested in commercial cameras for use in UAVs was confirmed by Chuck Westfall, who conducts research for Canon U.S.A. Inc.’s professional products division and who recently delivered a presentation on Canon products at a training exercise in Hawaii involving all of the branches of the armed services.

Despite the military’s interest in commercial off-the- shelf, or COTS, cameras, the models used by law enforcement will probably still be different from military drones, said Sam Arbel, who is vice president of business development for Stark Aerospace, a defense contractor that produces the Heron and the Hunter MQ-5B UAVs.

Echoing what Blades said, Arbel confirmed that the process for selecting cameras for UAVs, whether for law enforcement or the military, starts by identifying the mission. Once the client says what the mission is, that defines the camera — which drone manufactures call the “payload” — and its requirements to achieve the mission’s objectives, he said. A mission might require a high-level of identification of a target, he said. For example, someone under surveillance might be armed, therefore law enforcement officials controlling the UAV will likely want to know that, so they will need a camera that can provide that information, he said.

The client also must indicate whether the drone will be used during the day or at night, as well as the distance the UAV will be from the operator, Arbel said. “Those elements define the type of payload needed for a mission.”

The real difference between COTS cameras used on military UAVs and those used by local law enforcement is that the police agencies probably do not want all of the various sensors found on military UAVs, Blades added.

In addition, while police agencies might not want the expensive sensors deployed on military drones, the use of UAVs involves at least three distinct technologies: the camera, the aircraft and a controlling base that receives the video transmitted by the drone. Technologies on the market include a camera that is “easy” to integrate into a UAV gimbal; UAVs that are designed to serve law enforcement; and ground systems that provide access to the video captured by drones. A brief listing of the companies that produce those technologies includes:


IO Industries Inc.’s Flare 2KSDI

The sensor on IO Industries Inc.’s Flare 2KSDI camera is outfitted with “generator locking” that enables it to be synchronized with other devices such as GPS timing, according to Adam Little, IO Industries’ broadcast and cinema sales manager for North America. The camera also has two outputs, one is a mini overlay output, and the other is a clean output that can send a signal to a broadcast truck, he said.

The Flare is a small, rugged 3G/HD-SDI camera, capable of 1080p, as well as 2K modes, and its sensor is 2K by 1080, which enables it to do 2K digital cinema modes, Little said. The camera operates at about 4 W, and its low-power consumption will extend the battery, according to Little.

In addition, the Flare is “very small,” making it easy to integrate into the gimbal of a small UAV, he said. “It uses lenses that are threaded into the camera, and can be locked down into a smaller package than usual broadcast and cinema lenses,” Little said.


UAV Solutions Inc.’s Allerion 25 The Allerion 25, by UAV Solutions Inc., is in the “25-pound or under” class of UAV specified by the Federal Aviation Administration, said Bill Davidson, the company’s CEO. The Allerion is designed for use by the military, police or first responders, said Davidson, who added that the U.S. National Parks Service is interested in using the Allerion 25 to find people lost in the woods. “It does have military applications, but gears more toward law enforcement,” he said.

The Allerion’s lens is outfitted as a combined solution, rather than as separate gimbal solutions, enabling the user to switch between electro-optical and thermal imaging in flight, Davidson said. The ability to switch imaging offers a more capable system, he said.

The system is packaged in a custom enclosure that houses all needed components in the trunk or bed of a vehicle. The aircraft can be deployed in about five minutes, according to Davidson.


AeroVironment’s Qube The Qube aerial system by AeroVironment is a quadrotor UAV designed for law enforcement, said Kristen Helsel, the company’s vice president of EV solutions. Because the Qube is a quad-rotor, it takes off vertically and can hover over an incident or situation, according to Helsel. That can help law enforcement in search and rescue, or for serving a search warrant, or it can support the activities of first responders, she said. For anyone who has to participate in a difficult situation, she said, “the Qube provides eyes-in-the- sky for someone who needs it.”

The Qube can be transported in the trunk of a police vehicle, the back of a fire truck or a backpack. The small UAV can provide immediate situational awareness to first responders, giving them a bird’s eye view of the situation, day or night, to save lives and protect property, according to Helsel.

“What’s really great about Qube is from the time a firefighter or officer arrives at an incident, in less then five minutes they can have it in the air and flying at 400 feet providing an aerial perspective of whatever situation they are in,” she said.


Crystal Group Inc.’s RD 1119 The RD 1119, produced by Crystal Group Inc., is a rugged, high-brightness, high-brightness liquid-crystal display designed to receive UAV signals and track a target, according to James Shaw, the company’s vice president of engineering.

Designed for long life, the RD 1119 is front mounted in a 1U drawer for ease of use and stowing. A sealed keyboard option is available, the Crystal Group said. The display is designed so it can be opened up and used in the field, said Shaw.


Delta Digital Video’s 6820R Providing users with more channels and bandwidth is Delta Digital Video’s 6820R two-channel HD/SD encoder, said George Nelson, the company’s vice president. The 6820R is outfitted with a “Primary/Secondary” encoding feature that enables a second, lower-resolution, lower-bitrate copy of the video input to be independently configured and streamed simultaneously for a maximum of four streams, according to Nelson.

The 6820R is all about interoperability in the unmanned vehicle community, and the unit delivers full-motion video from aerial platforms to the ground, while ensuring interoperability with existing dissemination systems, thereby enabling interaction between the services, Nelson said.

The device compresses video and audio signals, multiplexing them with metadata and other system information for real-time video transmission applications. The 6820R is capable of simultaneously encoding two channels of video with resolutions up to 1080p. Utilizing the H.264 (MPEG-4 AVC Part 10) video compression algorithm, the encoder provides high-quality video transmission at various resolutions and a range of bandwidths.


Vislink Plc.’s Kamelyon The Kamelyon, by Vislink Plc., is a real-time, high-quality video downlink system, either from a UAV or from a manned aircraft, said Mark Tommey, the company’s vice president of sales, America. The Kamelyon supports the transmission of video produced by an airborne camera — either standard-definition or high-definition video — in real time, to a surface headquarters, he said. The system enables ground based personnel to see in real time, exactly what the pilot and camera operator are seeing, he said.

The Kamelyon is an important contributor to the tactical picture, for real-time imagery provides a tactical advantage to crisis management professionals, according to Tommey. The Kamelyon solution expands beyond a downlink from the aircraft, he said. “We can take that video and send it over terrestrial IP networks anywhere the user wants it to go. That could be to the emergency operations center, the police chief’s mobile device, [or] to the officers on the scene,” he said.



Crystal Group Inc.

Delta Digital Video

IO Industries Inc.

UAV Solutions Inc.:

Vislink Plc.