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  • Camera chips survive bus blast and tell a tale

Photonics Spectra
May 2009
Hank Hogan,

ABERDEEN, Md. – After the bus blew up, the search was on for survivors. However, the goal was not to rescue people. Instead, the objective was memory chips. Before the blast, the chips had been in cameras mounted inside the bus. Afterward, they were part of the debris.

Investigators combed through the wreckage of the retired and empty mass transit bus and recovered the chips. Upon testing, they found that the data prerecorded on the chips could be retrieved successfully from 14 of the 16 devices.

Those results are encouraging, said Stephen Dennis, technical director of the US Department of Homeland Security’s Advanced Projects Research Agency. The group is spearheading the development of inexpensive cameras that can provide forensic evidence after a transportation catastrophe.

“Transportation and law enforcement authorities see the potential for these cameras to aid in investigations of crime, accidents, disasters and acts of terrorism on mass-transit systems,” Dennis said.

The hardened devices were developed to meet an operation requirement document put out by the Department of Homeland Security, with all of the research and development funding being contributed by the responding companies. Dennis noted that two firms were involved, both of which are planning to go into commercial production eventually.

The US Department of Homeland Security blew up a bus and recovered camera memory chips from the wreckage as part of a test of technology developed to allow recorded data from mass-transit forensic cameras to survive blasts and other disasters. Courtesy of the Science & Technology Directorate, Department of Homeland Security.

The idea is to make cameras that cost $150 to $200 each. Mounted at strategic sites within the transportation system, the cameras will not provide live video feeds but instead will record data that can be analyzed later in the event that something happens. Because the cameras will produce forensic evidence that could be used in a courtroom, they must be tamper-resistant and have features that ensure establishment of the data’s chain of custody.

As a result of nondisclosure agreements, Dennis would not reveal the names of the companies involved in the bus test. He also would not go into detail about how the chips were made able to survive a blast. He did say, however, that the cameras did not have specialized sensors in them and that they were essentially just ruggedized versions of commercially available units.

A full-blown rollout of the cameras is contingent upon a series of pilot deployments that will be conducted by the Transportation Security Administration. These pilots will involve putting together 100 to 200 units, followed by installation, testing and evaluation. The process is not expected to take a long time, and commercial units could be in the marketplace by the end of the year.

There also is the likelihood that the technology will not simply be used to make camera data survive the destruction of a bus. There could be applications of the ruggedized memory technology in other settings, and that could have commercial implications, Dennis noted. “This is a whole new wave of products for a number of military applications and environments that demand a hardened solution.”

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