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Crimefighting tool or invasion of privacy? Plane can spy on you

What if you could watch a crime occur in real-time, and then be able to rewind and fast-forward to catch the criminals? A Dayton-area man helped invent a way to do it.

Ross McNutt spent 20 years in the Air Force. He has three degrees from MIT.

He invented a way to solve crimes by using a very special eye in the sky. It's a camera system that can be used to zoom into a crime scene almost immediately after a crime has occurred.

"It's like opening a murder mystery in the middle and you got blank pages before and blank pages after, and your job is to figure out what should be there, what happened," said McNutt.

The planes fly at around 8,000 feet.

"This project actually is an outgrowth of a program I ran inside the Air Force called Angel Fire," said McNutt.

At the height of the Iraq War, McNutt and his Air Force team were tasked with catching roadside bombers. Their solution was to develop a sophisticated 44-mega pixel camera system mounted on the bottoms of circling airplanes.

"To be able to take a picture of the whole city of Fallujah, every second, process it, downlink and get it to the ground so that when a bomb went off, we could go back in time, see who planted the bomb, see where the person who planted the bomb came from," said McNutt.

It worked so well, McNutt got another idea: put those same cameras in the skies over America. His company is called Persistent Surveillance Systems (P.S.S.) and his airplanes are based in a hanger at the Greene County Airport, where he showed off one of the systems.

"This allows us to integrate the 12 cameras at once into one large-type camera and that lets us take that 32-square-mile image," he said.

It's called wide-area surveillance. The pictures contain 192 million pixels and they can provide real-time views to analysts on the ground.

"What that allows us to do is support law enforcement by going back in time, seeing the crime occur and providing them information as to what happened at the crime scenes," said McNutt.

Fox 28 put the system to the test. We pretended to commit a crime so they could show us how they could help solve it. They zoomed into the scene of the "crime" near downtown Columbus and were able to tell that more than one "criminal" was involved. They followed two vehicles that left the scene and rendezvoused at an abandoned grocery store in Grandview Heights. Then they were able to work backwards to see that we had left our "hideout" about ten minutes prior to the "crime."

In a real crime, all of this information, including a second-by-second, turn-by-turn account, possible ground-level cameras we might have passed, and even streetview images would be given to detectives.

"Our job is not to solve the crime. Our job is to provide investigative leads to officers to act upon," said Dave Trexler, Director of Operations for P.S.S.

"So far, we've witnessed 39 murders as they've occurred," said McNutt, including a murder in Juarez, Mexico in which there were no witnesses. McNutt's team was able to put the puzzle together in a process that took them right to the killer's door.

"We were able to solve it: identify twelve locations, twelve vehicles, two (drug) cartel headquarters and the whole operation went down over the course of a four-and-a-half hour time period," he said.

McNutt says he can provide this technology to a city for less than the cost of buying and operating one police helicopter at about $2 million a year.

He believes it can cut a city's crime rate by 20 to 30 percent where by solving crimes and taking repeat offenders off the street earlier, it can be a deterrent.

"We would much rather deter a crime than have to solve a crime, because actually when you have to solve a crime there's actually two victims: the person who was hurt, and the family of the person who committed it," said McNutt.

There are privacy concerns. Many people are worried about like "Big Brother" following everybody's every move, every day. The city of Dayton decided not to hire Persistent Surveillance Systems after complaints from citizens, but other cities are interested, including Baltimore, St. Louis, Houston, and Miami.

McNutt hopes to find a city willing to do a year-long study so he can prove his eye in the sky can reduce crime.


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