From Body Cams to Smart Mobile Sensors

Dec. 13, 2019
The evolution of wearable technology is about more than just crime reduction and law enforcement accountability

From the moment of their initial deployment, body-worn cameras represented a shift in surveillance technology. Their invention took a traditionally stationary device—the security camera—and leveraged it to capture footage from the vantage of an individual as an event unfolded.

Today, body-worn cameras have evolved far beyond their original application. With new features, such as inter-device connectivity and artificial intelligence (AI), next-generation smart mobile sensors are changing the way we think about wearable technology. As a “smart” device, these sensors are participating in an ecosystem of cooperating technologies in the Internet of Things (IoT) and optimizing public safety, law enforcement and beyond.

The evolution of wearable technology, then, represents a movement away from an individual, disparate technologies to municipality-wide systems. In this sense, the story of this evolution is the same as that of smart technology, IoT and security solutions at large.

A Promising Beginning

In 2005, as part of the country’s Domestic Violence Enforcement Campaign (DVEC), the United Kingdom began testing body-worn cameras on a small scale among Devon and Cornwall police, who patrol villages along the rugged southwestern coast of England. Just two years into the test, the UK’s Home Office published a report stating that the “evidence gathering using this equipment has the potential radically to enhance the police performance at the scene of a wide range of incidents.”

Just five years later, over 40 UK police areas were using body cameras, with a project in Aberdeen—a Scottish port city of over 200,000—saving an estimated $445,000 each year, due to a reduction in crime and complications in court.

Come 2012, the National Institute of Justice at the United States Department of Justice issued a primer encouraging the implementation of this technology for local police. In 2014, President Barack Obama proposed “reimbursing communities half the cost of buying cameras and storing video.”

In 2017, Congress passed the Safer Officers and Safer Citizens Act, which allocated $100 million annually to help law enforcement agencies implement body-worn cameras. U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said about the legislation, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a thousand pictures.”

Since then, body-worn cameras have been integrated into hundreds of police departments across the U.S. to record events in real-time, in order to create a backlog of footage from all police incidents. The technology has been widely accredited with both enhancing public safety and increasing accountability for law enforcement.

An impact assessment published in 2017, based on 54 Rialto, Calif. police officers, found that citizen complaints against officers dropped by 88 percent, and "use of force" by 59 percent. More than this, a YouGov/Economist poll found that 88 percent of Americans support police officers wearing body cameras, with 56 percent strongly favoring the idea. Only eight percent are opposed.

Suffice it to say, body-worn cameras have seen steady, international adoption in the last decade.

IoT Inspires a New Generation of Technology

When the concept of IoT reached the mass market in early 2014, all technology sectors were affected, including security.

Michael Chui, a senior fellow with the McKinsey Global Institute, defines the basic paradigm of IoT deployments as “sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects” that are “linked through wired and wireless networks,” in order to “churn our huge volumes of data that flow to computers for analysis.” Without question, this concurrence of information and communication technology (ICT) and various physical devices has changed the way we think about device connectivity.

At its core, IoT systems consolidate data collection from different types of sensors to process and analyze information under a central network, for the purpose of managing assets and resources more efficiently. In a “smart city” application, centralizing information intake allows city officials to interact directly with an entire infrastructure, both receiving and analyzing data and responding to incidents in the same moment. Beyond cities, leveraging IoT devices to collect data that presents a holistic view of operations has been a key point of interest for many organizations, including transportation systems, power plants, water supply networks, waste management, schools and hospitals.

A New Device for a New Age

While IoT applications have changed the way we think about device ecosystems, they have also informed the way we innovate “familiar” technologies in the first place. IoT device connectivity is now an indispensable component of ever-evolving smart technologies. As IoT and AI technologies have experienced greater adoption in the marketplace, wearable technology has simultaneously progressed.

In the beginning, body-worn cameras took an image sensor and mounted it on a police officer or inside a police cruiser, instead of as part of a fixed surveillance installation. This did not affect the fundamental operation of the technology; but it did make cameras more mobile, agile and interactive.

Now, what was once just a body-worn camera, has been built to behave in an entirely new way. Known as smart mobile sensors today, these devices are infused with new IoT connectivity capabilities and integration with system-wide AI software.

These new, advanced wearable sensors capture video, audio and location data to then contribute this data to a wider network. Operating within this network, they can also trigger nearby sensors, such as a pan-tilt-zoom camera, to expand visibility and data aggregation for command centers, and even receive insights from the greater network, in order to leverage an entire ecosystem of information, rather than operating from one, disparate vantage.

Device Connectivity and AI: The Heart of IoT

With IoT connectivity, smart mobile sensors enable instantaneous data sharing across an entire infrastructure and provide command centers with real-time, intelligent insights for incident response. As a result, public safety and security agencies can respond quickly and work proactively to prevent an incident from escalating. With real-time intelligence, they can make proactive decisions, instead of having to respond to events after the fact—and that alone is revolutionizing the ability to save lives.

In a crowded city center, for example, where a natural disaster struck and affected thousands of individuals in a concentrated area—first responders equipped with smart mobile sensors, approaching an event from multiple access points, would be able to transmit all their visual, audio and geographic data to inform a central command center. Control room operators could quickly find out which roads were blocked due to road debris and gain a global view of where groups of people have been trapped throughout the city. Operators could then share these insights with search and rescue teams, helping them to improve their tactical approach. With this data, command center staff could ensure law enforcement personnel were dispatched to the areas that need it most, and they could also notify the closest hospital to prepare for an influx of injured people.

Lasting Impact of Smart Mobile Technology

The ability to integrate into a broader network of sensors is a distinguishing factor of wearable technology. And because of this evolution, among many others, cities around the world are seeing drastic improvements in public safety, as well as efficiencies across multiple municipal industries. 

The evolution of wearable technology, as such, is about more than just crime reduction and law enforcement accountability. It is a single-story within a much larger narrative, wherein entire cities are learning to be both safer and smarter. What was at first a re-appropriation of a familiar technology is now a new approach to technology innovation altogether.

In short, the first body-worn cameras provided post-incident information to be reviewed after the fact of an event. The next generation of wearable technology, however, sees smart mobile sensors offering insights in real-time—positively affecting the outcome of an event across public safety, security and transportation sectors.

About the author: Daniel Gundlach is the Vice President and General Manager of the Security division within FLIR Systems’ Commercial Business Unit. Gundlach leads all facets of the Security business, including strategy development, product innovation, sales and marketing, and operations. Gundlach joins FLIR from Apollo, a United Kingdom-based fire detection company, where he served as VP of Sales and Marketing. Prior to Apollo, he spent nearly 20 years at Bosch, including seven years as the VP of Marketing and Business Development for their Security and Safety Systems business. He served in numerous roles during his tenure at Bosch Security and Safety in both the United States and Europe, including VP of Marketing, VP of Business Development, and Chief of Staff to the President and CEO of Bosch Americas.

Gundlach has a Master of Science degree in Physics from the University of Hannover, Germany and a Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of Rostock, Germany.