Feb. 17--One of the region's newest law enforcement gadgets is an all-black, ball-shaped camera that swivels 360 degrees like R2-D2 in Star Wars.
The Eye Ball R1 is the size of a softball and is often launched through a window or rolled on the floor to help tactical officers see around corners or behind walls. The camera automatically rights itself when it stops rolling and, day or night, beams back audio and video to a hand-held color screen.
Howard County, Montgomery County, Annapolis and Baltimore police own the gadget, which an Israeli-company developed for military use and Remington's Rockville-based technology division brought to the American market last year.
"It's just nice to have a picture of what you're going into -- what's on the other side of the door," said Lt. John McKissick, director of Howard County's emergency preparedness division, which purchased the device last year to improve tactical officers' safety.
The electronics are molded inside a rubber and polyurethane shell -- making the 1 1/4 -pound ball durable and solid, so the electronics don't rattle. Pat Moore, who manages the Eye Ball project at Remington, said that the balls "are obviously not indestructible," but have been known to survive a drop from a second-story window.
"One police department threw it into a house and saw a pit bull sleeping on the couch," he said. "Right away, they knew to call animal control. Another department found a booby trap behind the door they were about to bust down.
"The story I hear over and over again, is that a guy is hiding in an attic and they attach it to a pole," Moore said. "The suspects usually give themselves away by peeking their head out to see what's looking at them."
Doug Ward, deputy director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership at the Johns Hopkins University, said that the device is an example of an increasing number of military products making their way into civilian use.
The military has developed a lot of robots so they can put them, rather than humans, in harm's way, he said. "They have robots that fly, that creep like spiders. Increasingly, you'll see police departments owning these types of devices."
McKissick said that the Eye Ball is a tremendous improvement over what it replaced in Howard County -- a store-bought camera mounted on a remote-controlled car.
Although the Eye Ball doesn't move after it stops rolling, and it doesn't record what it sees, McKissick said that its "ruggedness" is a "big plus." McKissick suggested that it could be mounted on a stake and stuck in the ground, dangled from a wire, attached to a pole or posted in a tree.
What made the device more attractive, McKissick said, was its price: About $5,000 for a set of two balls that share a portable screen. Funds from the federal Department of Homeland Security were used to purchase two sets for Howard County.
"To get greater mobility, you'd need to buy a robot," he said. "The sky's the limit with a robot, but it costs $150,000 to $250,000."
The Eye Ball captures noises within a five-yard radius and images within a 25-yard radius and wirelessly beams them up to 200 yards to the hand-held device. The battery lasts about two hours.
"This prevents us from wasting hours trying to negotiate with a suicidal suspect when that person has already killed himself," McKissick said.
The Annapolis and Montgomery County departments have yet to use the Eye Balls in the field. Matt Jablow, a spokesman for Baltimore police, said that he could not comment on how or when the city has used the ball because the department does not want to give away its tactics to criminals.
Moore said that more than 250 local law enforcement agencies, more than 30 federal agencies and "a lot of military branches" own the Eye Ball.