Lehigh professor designs camera

with eye on future

His 360-degree surveillance system

could be used by U.S. military to spot enemy in hiding

What do sniper-fighting drills at Fort Benning, Ga., and an electrical engineering and computer science professor's laptop at Lehigh University have in common?

LOTS, the Lehigh Omnidirectional Tracking System.

Professor Terrance Boult's surveillance project may one day help the military identify enemies in camouflage.

The stationary device, which is being developed in conjunction with Columbia University professor Shree Niyar, uses cameras and mirrors to provide a clear, 360-degree picture of the perimeter. The image is fed into a computer, which identifies possible threats.

The technology would replace cameras that scan back and forth, forcing a security guard to watch a wall of monitors.

"Let's face it. After 20 minutes of staring at those monitors, you're not going to see anything, especially if someone is in camouflage and moves slowly," Boult said.

LOTS monitors those images in the soldier's place. If a "significant" movement occurs, the computer draws a box around the area. A human determines whether the movement is a threat.

"It's not meant to be fully automated. This is a life or death situation." Boult said. "LOTS provides information, and humans make the decisions."

In developing the device, Boult had major hurdles to jump. With the help of nine graduate and 12 undergraduate students over the years, he wrote programs to account for light distortion and cloud movement.

Maps and other features were added to the program in 1999. Now, even as the military is testing it, improvements are being added.

Boult wants to expand the perimeter from its current 160-foot limit. The camera has to see for 6 miles if it is to be mounted on Navy periscopes to scan the horizon for other vessels.

Other improvements include programs for night vision and camera mobility.

Still, the technology isn't foolproof.

Boult said under certain "bizarre circumstances" the enemy could fool the device by mimicking "insignificant movement." But, to do that, the enemy would have to be wearing a white sheet in an all-white environment while blending into the shape of the terrain, he said.

"It's doubtful this could happen," he said.

The project began with grants through the Department of Defense. Private companies are jumping aboard to make LOTS the first "super camera" to be used outside a lab.

Among the private companies are Army Night Vision of Virginia, Remote Reality of Massachusetts and McQ Associates of Virginia.

Russell Thomas, advanced development director for McQ Associates, said the finished product could be born in as few as nine months.

"Most of the technology has been tested in contrived situations," Thomas said. "This is an effort to take cool technology and make it practical."

He said McQ Associates is working with Lehigh to develop the software, integrate into a digital signal process and build hardware that can be used in the field.

McQ Associates is looking beyond the military to market the device. He said he would try to tap state departments of transportation. The device, which would cost roughly $10,000, could sit in an intersection and record accidents to help determine culpability, Thomas said.

LOTS expansion into the private sector would arguably cause a stir among privacy activists.

Bill Brown, the director of Surveillance Camera Players in New York, said a "threatening trend" of military technology is seeping into the private sector.

Global cameras -- cruder models producing the 360-degree image -- entered the market about 15 years ago. Since then, the software that accompanies the cameras has become more advanced, he said.

Police in Tampa, Fla., with the NFL's blessing, used cameras in January to scan the faces of Super Bowl spectators and tried to match the digital images with the faces of known terrorists and criminals, an act the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has denounced.

"This is a concern, because the technology was developed specifically for the military, which does not exist under the same laws as domestic law enforcement," Brown said.

Officials in law enforcement use surveillance on people they suspect of being up to no good, he said. But global cameras suspect everyone of being up to no good and violate the protection against unreasonable searches, he said.

"It's a violation of the Fourth Amendment," Brown said.

[Written by Nicole Radzievich and published by The Morning Call (in Pennsylvania) on 3 September 2001.]

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