State Patrol eyes in the sky get a whole lot sharper
High-tech camera system lets troopers see clearly


State Patrol Trooper Paul Speckmaier has been flying over Washington state roads and highways for the past 10 years. As an agency pilot, he has watched for wrecks, chased down speeders and, more recently, looked for suspicious activity on ferries and at ferry terminals.

But for all that time, Speckmaier's view has been only as good as was allowed by his eyes and the weather.

State Patrol pilots now have a high-tech camera system known by the acronym FLIR, for Forward Looking Infrared. It can zoom and has a stabilizing system to make an image easier to see. It also includes a heat-seeking camera.

"It's opening up a lot of jobs for us," Speckmaier said Friday at Boeing Field, as he stood near one of the State Patrol's Cessna 206 aircraft outfitted with one of the new systems.

With a $1 million grant from the Defense Department, the State Patrol has been able to outfit two of its planes with the new camera systems.

The camera is mounted on a black bubble on the pilot side of the Cessna. Inside the plane is a control panel with a joystick that the flight officer who accompanies the pilot can use to control the camera. There is one large screen mounted inside and a smaller one near the pilot, so both can see what the camera sees. The gear also includes a digital video recording system.

A microwave component allows long-range antennae to download images directly from the camera in real time. There are five such antennae in the area, including one at the State Patrol facility in Bellevue and one at the Emergency Operations Center at Camp Murray south of Tacoma.

The grant also allowed the State Patrol to buy four portable receivers with screens. Two are meant to be hand-held and are about the size of a large book. The other two are about the size of a large briefcase.

Lt. Tristan Atkins, with the aviation section, said the camera equipment on the planes has already proved its value. It has allowed troopers in the sky to better assess traffic accidents and get help more quickly to disabled vehicles. And it has been used in criminal investigations and tactical operations.

On May 17, the cameras on the planes helped a State Patrol SWAT team raid a home in Tumwater where a man had taken his girlfriend's son hostage.

In March, pilots on the FLIR-equipped planes were able to videotape a drug transaction that was later used to arrest 13 people and seize more than 5 pounds of methamphetamine in Gig Harbor.

Trooper Troy Davis, a 15-year veteran and pilot for 18 months, said the cameras allow him to see things he could never have seen with only his eyes.

"I can see with search and rescue it's going to be invaluable," he said.

The State Patrol has used small airplanes since the late 1950s to patrol the freeways and roads, Atkins said. Currently, the agency has the two Cessna 206 aircraft, three Cessna 182s, two of those patrolling Eastern Washington, and two King Air B200s for transportation.