Speed cameras to go fully digital
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Posted by Chris Green at 2:41pm, 21 May 2007

News broke over the weekend that the thousands of analog GATSO speed cameras around the UK are set to be replaced with their digital counterparts. Bad news for motorists, great news for storage and backup vendors.

The UK currently has over 6,000 speed cameras in operation in total. Of these, around a third are mobile cameras, almost all digital already. The remainder are the fixed roadside cameras, of which only the most recent additions are already digital, the rest relying on old-fashioned photo film cartridges, which are good for 200 pics before they run out and render the camera useless until the camera is reloaded. There are also a number of variable speed cameras in operation across stretches of UK road, usually alongside roadworks. These are digital, and work on the basis of number-plate recognition combined with calculating your average speed between two or more cameras across the monitored stretch of road.

Right now, the speed camera network is maintained by a small army of trade unionists who wander along from time to time, refill the camera with a fresh film cartridge, and where applicable, turn the camera around in order to cause chaos and late breaking among the people travelling in the other direction. With the widespread adoption of digital cameras, that will change, as the cameras can be wired onto existing data networks and can transmit their digital images back to the police, the DVLA or anywhere else they need to as they are taken. This will not only mean that cameras will catch more speeding drivers (as the only reasons for a camera to stop earning money will be when it’s out of order, or hopefully encased in concrete or builders foam, rather than being out of film), but that the time it takes from photograph being taken to fine being issued will decrease dramatically, as the whole developing and processing part of the process will disappear, as will any scanning from photo to digital image, and any filing of analog images – both very time-consuming tasks.

With images being transmitted back, rather than being captured and processed in analog form, this means more storage. To give you an idea of how many pics are generated, 1.8 million fixed penalty fines were issued in 2003-2004, each requiring at least two images – so at least 3.6 million clear, high resolution images.

With the move to digital, it makes little sense to keep pictures stored locally, either in the camera or a roadside cabinet – as drivers are smart enough to work out that if they get caught, all they need do is vandalise the camera or cabinet in order to dodge prosecution.

Good quality pics will take up space, lots of space, so the authorities will need to combine their investment in new cameras with significant investment in both storage arrays to hold the captured images, and in a decent backup solution and infrastructure to ensure images are not lost through hardware failure or data corruption – two excuses that will not wash with the judge if used by the CPS in a non-payment of fine case or other dispute over a fine. This will also be a major test for the integrity of digital photography. Such a widespread and extensive deployment of good resolution cameras will not only cut the costs of catching and fining speeding motorists, but will provide a much needed case study for companies looking once and for all to demonstrate the benefits and quality of digital photography over analog.