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Lights, Camera, Ka-Boom!

(March 5, 2009)

Inexpensive, lightweight bomb-proof cameras may help protect mass transit.

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S&T blew up a retired Maryland Transit Authority bus filled with inexpensive cameras to see if their memory chips would survive the blast. S&T tested two technologies—one orange and one yellow—shown in the opening frames of the video below. February 6, 2009

Can a cheap little camera survive a big costly blast?

That was the question on the minds of Department of Homeland Security scientists and managers watching from behind three feet of reinforced concrete.

“30 seconds…” came the countdown voice in an adjacent room.

Outside was an old public bus, rigged to explosives; a series of baseball-sized video cameras mounted to its walls. Could the images on their memory chips be salvaged by computer engineers? Would they be clear enough to identify the bomber? In this case, of course, the latter question wasn’t much of a mystery.

“20 seconds…” the voice called again.

Earlier in the day, this group had traveled out to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, the test site for every Army vehicle with wheels or tracks since World War II. They went as guests of the Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) to witness a test more than two years in the making.

Stephen Dennis, an S&T program manager, explained the idea. DHS wanted to develop cameras with memory chips sturdy enough to withstand bombing attacks, fires or floods, but inexpensive enough to use in places where a complete surveillance system wasn’t workable.

DHS’s target price for the cameras was between $150 and $200 a piece, he said.

“10 seconds…”

“These cameras would be used as a means of forensic analysis,” said Dennis, pointing out two working prototypes under consideration. The cameras would not transmit or collect personal information, and would be tamper-proof to prevent someone from ripping one off a wall and, say, posting the images on YouTube. Video from the cameras would be recovered and used by law enforcement only after an incident.

Inside the shelter, the group watched a wall of flat screens hooked up to high-speed cameras ringing the bombing range outside. This was just one test with one bus, representing just one kind of dangerous threat.

“The idea is that the cameras are robust enough to survive the blast from a suicide bomber,” said Dennis.

There had been some talk about what kind of damage the explosive representing this suicide bomber could do. Would it pop the ceiling open like a tin can? Would it split the bus in half?

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”

Even behind a giant steel plate, the walls of the shelter shuddered. The screens flashed red, and filled with smoky plumes.

Once the smoke cleared and flying debris settled, the group watched workmen through the digital haze as they wandered the cold and muddy site, plugging the ground with colored flags wherever they spotted one of the small cameras. A metal strip from the bus’s shell lay across tree branches a hundred yards away. There wasn’t much left except the wheels and chassis.

In a future issue of Snapshots, find out if the cameras' memory chips survived the blast intact.

To request more information about any of these stories, please e-mail st.snapshots@hq.dhs.gov.

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