April 27, 2013 8:47:34 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - email@example.com
"It's like something from a James Bond movie," a man whispered, watching in awe Friday as Stark Aerospace electro-optical technician Arzell Huggins demonstrated the company's Pop200 infrared surveillance system.
It can see through bushes, trees and certain types of materials. From 3,000 feet in the air, in the middle of the night, it can find you, track you and tell if you are carrying a weapon, lighting a cigarette, standing up, laying down or crouching behind an object, trying to hide.
And this year, two of the cameras will be at the Market Street Festival -- one for people to see up close and one hidden to monitor the crowd.
The company offered to let festival organizers use the Pop200 several months ago, long before bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring at least 282, but given the estimated 35,000 to 40,000 people expected to flood downtown Columbus May 4-5, it's an added layer of security, Main Street Columbus Executive Director Barbara Bigelow said.
"We're not doing this because we're afraid of something happening," she said. "We don't want it to look like we're in panic mode. We're not concerned, and we're not fearful at all -- no more concerned than we were two weeks ago."
Bigelow's husband, Chuck Bigelow, works as facility manager at Stark and was on hand Friday with company president Tom Ronaldi to answer questions for local law enforcement and city officials about the technology, which is being loaned at no cost.
The camera, which weighs 35 pounds and is roughly the size and shape of a basketball, uses thermal imaging to detect varying degrees of heat signatures. It is similar to the FLIR (forward-looking infrared device) technology the Boston Police Department used last week to observe bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he lay wounded in a covered boat in a Watertown, Mass. suburb.
Cooler objects appear gray to white, while warmer objects appear darker gray to completely black.
"Touch that wall with your hand," Huggins said to a bystander at Friday's presentation.
The man touched the wall, then lowered his hand. When Huggins focused the camera on the wall, the hand print remained for a few seconds -- reminiscent of the 1980s "Hypercolor" T-shirts that changed colors when touched.
Huggins surveyed the perimeter of Stark's grounds, stopping briefly to track a bird in a tree before zooming in on the West Point Water tower, seven miles away. Based upon the varying shades of gray and white, he was able to determine that the water tower was nearly full.
And this is a 15-year-old, used camera Stark will refurbish and sell. It costs around $150,000, but newer systems can cost upwards of $500,000. The data can be downloaded to videotape and, eventually, wirelessly.
Stark has found its biggest customer in the United States Department of Defense, which uses its products -- which include unmanned aerial vehicles -- to protect high-value targets like airports, power plants and buildings in Washington, D.C. The products have also found multiple uses in combat, especially to monitor perimeters and warn of security breaches.
"They're using them in Afghanistan to look over the Marines and let them sleep safely at night," Chuck Bigelow said. "They're looking for the bad guys."
Because of the sensitivity of the proprietary technology Stark creates, it is unusual for visitors to get an inside peek, but there are some things the public can see, and Ronaldi said he plans to share more in the future.
"We're looking at doing this more regularly," Ronaldi said. "It's a good opportunity to show the public what we do."
So will the Columbus Police Department be purchasing a handful of the Pop200s any time soon? Don't bet on it, said Columbus Police Chief Selvain McQueen and Lt. Carroll Culpepper Friday after watching the demonstration. For the hefty price tag, McQueen said, they could give raises and buy much-needed patrol cars.
Stark Aerospace, a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., opened its Columbus facility in 2009. It was established in 2006 at Mississippi State University's Raspet Flight Lab.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.