Homeland Security Goes Higher-Tech; Responding to the Need for Better Technology to Fight Terrorism, the Private Sector Is Making Innovations in Digital Imaging, Disaster Recovery and Communications. (THE NATION)

Article excerpt

Byline: James P. Lucier, INSIGHT

The small single-engined Cessna 172 swooped low over the Pentagon on Jan. 12, 2001, and began shooting. But it was no problem. Moments later the crew completed taking some 40 superhigh-resolution digital photographs of the Department of Defense (DoD) complex as part of a total survey of Arlington County, Va. a suite of 7,000 digital images covering every building, every street, even every manhole cover in the highly urbanized 26-square-mile community.

With a foresight that was to pay off almost exactly nine months later, Arlington was the first jurisdiction to make use of a new digital technology developed by Pictometry International Corp. of Rochester, N.Y. It allows first responders to an emergency to view crisis areas down to a resolution of a six-inch square on the ground, calculate distances, measure heights and identify obstacles within 15 seconds after the coordinates are pumped into a computer.

Minutes after hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the south side of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, first responders rushed to the scene with equipment that included a laptop computer. "We used the Pictometry images as guides to measure the width of the blast and depth of its penetration into the inner rings [of the Pentagon]," says John Snyder of the Arlington County Fire Deptartment. "We could measure the exact height of the building and the location and size of every window."

Unlike traditional aerial photographs which give a one-dimensional, top-down view of the subject, Pictometry takes 12 different views, including 40-degree-angle shots from all sides. The result is an image that is interpreted more easily by persons without technical training, using an ordinary laptop connected to a closed Ethernet. Moreover, with a 6 million-pixel resolution, the viewer can zoom in or pull back for a broad view.

"Onboard the aircraft from which these images are taken, we have very detailed orientation and positioning capabilities that let the aircraft know where it is in the sky and where the camera is looking at the moment of exposure," Pictometry's senior vice president of marketing, Dante Pennacchia, tells Insight. "We use differential GPS [global positioning system] and inertial guidance, just like cruise missiles."

Following Arlington's example, more than 40 counties and cities have licensed the Pictometry system, including New York City, Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, San Bernadino, Calif., Philadelphia and the state of Massachusetts. "We weren't called on to map New York City until two weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Center," says Pennacchia. "But then they used our measurements to ... estimate the amount of debris to be removed."

More mundane uses of the technology include training for firefighters and police, plotting a response to large fires or looking at all sides of a house where a hostage-taker is holding off responders. However, the system does not invade personal privacy. The 6-by-6-inch resolution box just is not small enough to identify faces, or to read newspaper headlines. Nor does it show the scene in real time; the images normally are updated every two years.

Pictometry was just one of many new technologies for homeland security that were demonstrated recently at FOSE 2003, an information-technology show for government agencies held in the nation's capital. With the country on orange or yellow terrorism alert, federal and local officials are scrambling to integrate current technologies and develop new ones.

However, Rose Parkes, chief information officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, tells Insight, "The federal government has not been successful in driving technology standards. We have to leave it to the market. We are using off-the shelf products to get the job done. As a result, we have wireless field offices that go up on site in 24 hours."

The private sector continues to push the edge of development. …

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