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Camera drone to keep eye on crowds at Newport News festival

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Police will have a helpful eye in the sky near City Center for Friday's Hollydazzle festivities.

Anyone looking up in the area will be able to see a 15-foot-wide helium balloon about 400 feet high. They may not be able to see that it carries a camera capable of recording with a 360-degree view for a three-mile radius.

"We look as it as a force multiplier," Assistant Police Chief Joseph Moore said. The camera will help police determine if they need to deploy officers to a particular spot. Eighty officers are manning the holiday festival expected to garner about 30,000 attendees, but in such a crowd it's hard to see 10 feet out, Moore said.

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The "Skynet" camera technology provided by Newport News-based BOSH Technologies will be used to monitor traffic, which is a "nightmare" during Hollydazzle, and to be able to spot commotions in the crowd, Moore said. Use of the camera will focus on public locations and the festival — not private areas, he said. The footage can help the city adjust traffic signals for better vehicle flow.

While the chief did not specifically define private areas, City Center is a mixed use development with residences and businesses.

"We are well aware of privacy concerns. We have those ourselves," Moore said, adding, "When we set up cameras to monitor locations, we make sure they're set up to not infringe upon people's rights."

The camera will be deployed near the BOSH Technologies offices on Compass Way and will feed live video to its ground control station on Gum Rock Court and to the police department's mobile command center via a wireless signal, said Susan Houchin, a company spokeswoman. Its exact location will depend on Friday's wind. During the day, the system would feed color video and at night will feed black-and-white infrared (heat-sensing) images. The camera will stay in the air about an hour before Hollydazzle starts at 6 p.m. and an hour after it ends at 9 p.m.

The camera can zoom in, but the quality of the picture and the level of detail depends on conditions, although Skynet uses an image stabilizer, Houchin said.

The police department doesn't have facial recognition software and it won't be using the event to try to look for fugitives, Moore said, but it will give officers on the ground an idea of where to check out possible disturbances or suspicious activity.

The use of the system gives Newport News police a way to test how aerial surveillance could be helpful and gives BOSH a chance to use its technology in a civilian setting, Moore said. The company, which has been providing Skynet services to municipalities for the past three years, is not charging the city, he said. BOSH has extensive experience in the field for military agencies and government.

The city will also test one of BOSH's 60-foot inflatable towers that will host one of the department's older cameras during the event, said Lou Thurston, a spokesman for Newport News police. The department hopes to continue a relationship with the company for improving its video transmission from both its mobile patrol cameras and its stationary surveillance cameras located in hot spots throughout the city, Moore said. The department would eventually like to have a real-time crime center where video is fed to a centralized location at headquarters, he added. Newport News doesn't do aerial surveillance currently and doesn't have a helicopter because it is cost-prohibitive, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia would like the General Assembly to pass legislation that would require cities to get the approval of local government before using aerial surveillance or unmanned drones, said Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

"We have very serious reservations about the use of any unmanned aerial surveillance whether it's a drone or balloon," Gastañaga said, adding camera technology can be sophisticated enough to identify people.

The individual rights advocacy group also would like police to have to get a warrant to use aerial surveillance and that there should be strict limitations on how such data is collected and used, she said.

"The public should have a role in deciding whether police in their jurisdiction are going to be using this kind of technology," Gastañaga said.

City Manager Neil Morgan said he doesn't agree with the ACLU that an elected body needs to pre-approve a surveillance camera.

"There are security cameras all over the place in every American city," Morgan said. "To use it as a traffic control, safety and crowd control device is appropriate. I don't see what the issue is."

Staff writer Joe Lawlor contributed to this report.
 

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