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To Catch a Thief - FBI

Two NASA scientists are working with the police and the FBI to track down criminals using out-of-this-world video technology.


FBI and other law enforcement officers - whose investigations are normally down-to-Earth - have been seeking the help of two NASA scientists who study the Sun and storms like hurricanes.

Why are specialists from such different worlds working together?

The NASA researchers, using their expertise and equipment for analysing satellite video -- created technology that can dramatically improve TV images including crime scene videos. With law enforcement officers looking over their shoulders, the scientists use their computer software to turn dark, jittery images captured by home video, security systems and video cameras in police cars into clearer, stable images that reveal clues about crimes.

David Hathaway and Paul Meyer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, have worked on over a dozen criminal cases with the police and FBI. Hathaway, a solar physicist, is usually busy studying images of violent explosions on the Sun, and Meyer, an atmospheric scientist, examines hazardous weather conditions on Earth. The scientists' foray into the world of forensics began when they helped the FBI analyse video of the bombing that killed two people and injured hundreds more at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta. Hathaway and Meyer successfully clarified night-time videotapes made with handheld camcorders, revealing important details about the bomb and the explosion.

Since their first case with the FBI, Hathaway and Meyer have worked over the years to refine the VISAR technology, improving it so that it has now been transferred to companies that produce video enhancement systems for law enforcement, the military and even home computers.

NASA inventors Paul Meyer (left) and David Hathaway view a license plate number revealed by using the Video Image Stabilisation and Registration -- VISAR -- software to improve poor quality footage. Meyer and Hathaway invented the software at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama.

The FBI and other criminal investigators are able to use the NASA technology at their own stations. The NASA scientists' invention -- called Video Image Stabilisation and Registration, or VISAR - is available in a video tracking and enhancement system developed by Intergraph Government Solutions, a subsidiary of Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville. The company has signed a licensing agreement with NASA to use VISAR in its Video Analyst System, which offers broadcast-quality analysis features on Intel-based hardware.


The skier seems to glide across the water when video made with a digital handheld camcorder (below) is enhanced using VISAR (above).


"After analysing crime video for detectives and seeing the horrible details of some of these crimes, it gives me great satisfaction that police can use NASA technology to put murderers behind bars," said Hathaway.

Hathaway, for example, helped enhance security camera videotape made during the kidnapping of a Minnesota teenager. In an intensive effort, the FBI and police worked with Hathaway to identify the abductor and try to find the teenager before she was harmed. Police now believe she was killed. The tape was later used as evidence in the trial of a man convicted of the murder.

The VISAR system has proved so useful because it is able to correct the effects of jitter, rotation and zoom from frame to frame in video. Once corrected, the registered video images may then be combined to produce clearer images.

"At NASA, we routinely take satellite images of storm clouds and enhance them to see what is going on in the atmosphere," said Meyer. "Looking for clues about what is happening in a storm is similar to being a detective and finding out what took place at a crime scene."

Commercial interest in licensing the Marshall invention is based on its ability to do more than just remove noise or "snow" from videos. The software also corrects for horizontal and vertical camera motion, as well as rotation and zoom effects. It produces clearer images of moving objects, smoothes jagged edges and enhances still images.

"By adding VISAR to our Video Analyst Workstation, we can now offer the law enforcement, military, intelligence and security communities these powerful capabilities in a comprehensive video analysis system," said Trey McKay, executive manager of Federal Hardware Solutions at Intergraph Government Solutions.

Photo: David Hathaway, NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre

VISAR can reveal valuable clues from videos taken in extremely low light. The single frame (left) taken at night, was brightened, enhancing details and reducing noise, or "snow." To further overcome the video's defects in one frame, scientists at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, used VISAR software to add information from multiple frames to reveal a person. To create the clarified image (right), images from less than a second of videotape were added together.

Video imagery for defence applications has also been improved through another licensing agreement between NASA and BARCO Inc. Display Systems, of Duluth, Ga. The company has incorporated VISAR into its new computer hardware, designed for real-time video image enhancement, stabilisation, and tracking.

"The reconnaissance video imagery made by military vehicles, aircraft and ships travelling in harsh, rugged environments is often shaky and unstable," said Michael Garner, a BARCO business analyst. "Our defence industry customers will be pleased with the improvements NASA's software makes to reconnaissance and surveillance video."

To evaluate the use of the video enhancement software for medical purposes, Meyer and Hathaway have been working with the Casey Eye Institute at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland through a NASA Space Act Agreement. Officials at the institute have called the video evaluations "awesome." Through partnerships with the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health, scientists at the Portland institute use an innovative technique to study video of cell movements in the eye associated with immune system diseases.

"Working with the NASA software, we can answer questions that advance our understanding of processes unique to the eye and our understanding of how the immune system works," said Stephen R. Planck, associate professor for the Casey Institute. "After NASA enhanced the video, we could see cell movements inside the eye that were undetectable before."


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First Science 2014