For Police Helicopters, Infrared Video Is Key

Aboard AIR1. ©Michael James/EPS
Since 2001, Canada's Edmonton (Alberta) Police Service has been flying a FLIR visual/infrared video camera aloft aboard AIR1, the department's Eurocopter EC120 helicopter. Today, AIR1 has flown 8,800 flight hours; more than any other EC120 anywhere in the world. And throughout all those hours, infrared video has proven to be an absolutely vital tool for the EPS and its sister first responder agencies.

"When it comes to aiding ground-based officers in apprehending suspects or finding missing persons, nothing does the job like our FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) camera," says Constable Jim Pennie, chief tactical flight officer with the EPS' Flight Operations Unit. "It allows us to see things on the ground as small as a glowing cigarette tip, or the heat from a beer bottle tossed out of a speeding car. At night, we're essentially blind without it."

AIR1'S VIDEO SUITE

Although his title is Chief Tactical Flight Officer, Pennie describes himself as AIR1's "observer."

"I'm the guy who is the eyes for the people on the ground," he says. "Whether by looking out the window or watching the action using our FLIR camera, I'm the one who sees what's going on and does his best to rely this information accurately to everyone else."

To do the job, Pennie controls the FLIR visual/infrared video camera, mounted inside a fully weatherized gimbal housing under the aircraft. The FLIR rotates 360 degrees in both azimuth and elevation.

Inside, Pennie uses a T-style hand control to alter the camera's position and to zoom the lens up by a factor of 10. He watches what's going on using a 12.1-inch LCD screen mounted in front of him.

"I can flip from visual (daytime) to infrared with the flick of a switch," he says.

AIR1 is equipped with an MRC microwave downlink, which sends the video down to ground-based receivers, including at the Edmonton Fire Department's mobile command center, where it can be viewed in real time. The EPS also has a mobile command center with a downlink, plus two handheld receivers stored in Pelican cases that are deployed as needed.

AIR1's 8,800 flight hours are the most of any EC120 in the world. ©Michael James/EPS
Intriguingly, AIR1's video suite does not focus on recording what it sees from the air. "We do have an old Hi-8 recorder that can be connected to the feed to capture the video, but it's out of commission much of the time," Pennie says. "We are considering adding a digital video recorder, but frankly, recording video for evidence has never been the emphasis of our mission. Our job is to give the folks on the ground better intel on what's happening, and to aid them in their operations, in real time.

WHY INFRARED MATTERS

Like many police helicopters, AIR1 is equipped with a Nightsun spotlight. However, when it comes to nighttime operations, it's the FLIR infrared camera that makes the difference.

"Even in daytime, the altitude we fly at can make it hard to see precisely what's happening on the ground," says Pennie. "However, the heat signature given off by people and objects stands out so clearly in infrared, that it can give us the clues we need to successfully complete an apprehension or a search-and-rescue mission."

Where infrared really pays off is in searching rural and wilderness areas outside of Edmonton, in support of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. "We were once given a 200-square-mile area to search in complete darkness, in aid of an RCMP missing person search," Pennie says. "Visually, it was an impossible mission. But thanks to infrared, we were able to detect the embers of a dwindling fire the victim had lit in a clearing. The fire was almost dead due to a lack of fuel. But the heat from the coals still showed up clearly on infrared, and that's how we found him. They'd been searching 13 hours; we found him in seven minutes."

Infrared also shows its worth when AIR1 assists ground-based officers in their operations. "We were once called out one winter to help chase four suspects after a garage B&E (break-and-enter)," says Pennie. "As we tracked the suspects running away from the scene, I noticed a glowing object tossed by one of them into a backyard. After the suspects were apprehended, one of our officers went back to the scene, and discovered a loaded .38. The backyard belonged to a family who had small children. They would have found this gun once the snow had melted; I shudder to think of the consequences."

Even a simple cigarette blooms onscreen 1,000 feet up, he says.

THE NEW AND IMPROVED AIR2

With 8,800 hours on its airframe, the EPS' AIR1 needs ongoing maintenance and repair; it's out of the air 35 percent of the time. So the department is about to take delivery of a new EC120, dubbed AIR2, which will assume most of the aerial duties with AIR1 remaining as a backup.

The new EC120 will come with some substantial video surveillance improvements. One of these will be a "lock-on" feature for the FLIR camera. This will allow the flight tactical officer to select a point within his field of view, and then instruct the camera to keep it onscreen, no matter where the aircraft goes.

AIR2's Nightsun will also be linked electronically to the FLIR camera. When the pilot wants the spotlight to illuminate whatever is on screen, all the observer will have to do is to hit one button. The Nightsun will automatically track to the camera's position.

RESULTS

Since its launch in 2001, Edmonton's AIR1 has taken part in 335 aerial pursuits with an apprehension rate above 99 percent, according to EPS Staff Sgt. David Berry, the person in charge of the department's six-person Flight Operations Unit.

"AIR1 is—and has always been—support for our front line members," says Pennie. "Just like the patrol member with a duty belt full of tools, we have our own specialized set of tools. The FLIR is our most powerful tool and we all take pride in the proven effect it has had on our investigative results. Why just light up a fleeing suspect with the spotlight when you can get him tossing the stolen car keys or drugs?"

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