Cool cop tech: 5 new technologies helping police fight crime

Throwable robotic cameras, gunshot detection systems and even familiar iPads are among the tech tools in police departments' arsenals.

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What the MAV brings to police work is the ability to get a close look dangerous situations as they unfold. About 24 inches in diameter and 24 inches tall, the 19-lb. MAV is a flyable video camera that bears more of a resemblance to a helicopter than it does to, say, a jet. It can hover and fly in any direction and is operated by a pilot using a laptop computer and a small control unit that directs its movements in the air.

Usually flown between 25 and 300 feet above the ground, the MAV runs on gasoline and has a built-in horizontal fan that moves it around like a hovercraft. "It's gyro-stabilized, so it almost flies itself," Cohen said. "You just tell it where to go."

A MAV system retails for $250,000, according to Honeywell. Because of its specialized nature, only licensed pilots in the department's aviation unit are permitted to operate it, Cohen said.

The department began testing the MAV while looking at ways to provide aerial support for its special tactical team. "We would use it for reacting to a barricaded suspect or a hostage situation," he said. "We don't want to bring our officers in during such a risk. We can bring this in to provide real-time information to commanders on the ground and give them video so they can make a decision."

The MAV is working well for the test pilots, Cohen said. "The software is very intuitive. We're looking forward to using it. We've put so much time and effort into it, so we're looking forward to it bearing some fruit."

The MAV does have some limitations, he said. Because of its small size and light weight, it can't be used in strong winds. It can only be operated during daylight hours, according to FAA rules, and it must be flown within an FAA-approved restricted operating zone that ensures it's kept at a safe distance from full-size aircraft. The MAV is also labor-intensive, requiring at least four pilots to operate it -- one at the controls and three others to maintain visual contact, monitor for safety and handle communications.

Not everyone is a fan of these flying cameras, according to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal. Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union argue that the devices could allow police to improperly spy on citizens and conduct illegal surveillance operations while shredding personal privacy. The ACLU recently issued a 16-page report (download PDF) outlining its concerns.

Cohen defended his department's desire to use the drones, arguing that they can't be used for spying because they're very loud. "It's not sneaking up on you," he said. "It's very loud and noisy -- it sounds like a flying lawnmower. We're not going to be taking this thing up arbitrarily to see what we can see."

GPS vehicle pursuit darts: A cautionary tale

High-speed chases can be dangerous both for police officers and the general public. To minimize that danger, a company called StarChase has developed a system that shoots a special GPS-equipped dart that adheres to a fleeing vehicle and allows authorities to track the vehicle's movements from a safe distance, without a frantic pursuit.

The StarChase Pursuit Management System has been tested and evaluated by police departments around the country, including the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Volusia County Sheriff's Office in Florida, according Karen Jaffe, CEO of the Virginia Beach-based company.

The darts, which are made from semi-rigid foam and other materials, are aimed using a laser and then fired with an air-compressor-powered mechanism from the grille of a police car, Jaffe said. The dart attaches to the suspect's vehicle using magnets and a proprietary glue. "It's designed to be fired so it doesn't distract the officer" during the initial chase, which officers can discontinue once the dart is attached, she said.

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