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ANPR Surveillance Helicopter Tested
160 MPH spy helicopter would track cars from 2000 feet.

Essex police spy copterThe fictional police spy helicopter from the movie Blue Thunder is taking a big step toward becoming a reality. Police in the UK have successfully tested a 160 MPH helicopter that can read license plates from as much as 2,000 feet in the air. The Eurocopter EC135 is equipped with a camera capable of scanning 5 cars every second. Essex Police Inspector Paul Moor told the Daily Star newspaper: "This is all about denying criminals the use of the road. Using a number plate recognition camera from the air means crooks will have nowhere to hide."

The use of Automated Plate Number Recognition (ANPR) is growing. ANPR devices photograph vehicles and then use optical character recognition to extract license plate numbers and match them with any selected databases. The devices use infrared sensors to avoid the need for a flash and to operate in all weather conditions.

Within the U.S., two cities are using the technology in a device called "Bootfinder" to identify and tow vehicles with unpaid parking tickets or even overdue library books. One woman's car in Connecticut was towed out of her driveway because she had $85 in unpaid parking tickets. Legislation is pending in Texas to allow the use of RFID to scan and ticket passing motorists who have expired automobile insurance.

Originally intended to detect stolen vehicles and cloned cars, ANPR is increasingly being used in the UK to issue tickets. For instance, drivers who have expired insurance face a £200 fine or if they haven't paid their car tax, they face a £60 fine. In 2004, ANPR teams stopped 180,543 vehicles and issued 51,000 tickets for offenses including failure to wear a seatbelt, use of a mobile phone while driving, and various insurance and road tax infractions.

One of the companies that sells the camera scanning equipment touts it's potential for marketing applications. "Once the number plate has been successfully 'captured' applications for it's use are limited only by imagination and almost anything is possible," Westminster International says on its website. UK police also envision a national database that holds time and location data on every vehicle scanned. "This data warehouse would also hold ANPR reads and hits as a further source of vehicle intelligence, providing great benefits to major crime and terrorism enquiries," a Home Office proposal explains.

Britain began experimenting with ANPR on September 30, 2002 in nine jurisdictions. The UK government is spending an additional £15 million (US $28 million) to provide a mobile ANPR van for each police force in England and Wales. The full national rollout of ANPR is expected in fall 2005.

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