Law Enforcement Turns to NASA’s Video-imaging Technology

November 17, 2005

Two members of NASA have turned their eyes from the skies and towards law
enforcement cases. From homeland security threats to child abductions, a
video-enhancement system developed by NASA is proving to be a valuable
law-enforcement tool.

The most recent cases in the news involving the joint efforts of police
and NASA were the Space Shuttle Columbia accident investigation and the
abduction in Sarasota, Florida, of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia at a car

David Hathaway and Paul Meyer, scientists at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight
Center, used their expertise and equipment for analyzing satellite video
images of space to create a crime fighting tool called Video Image
Stabilization and Registration (VISAR). It converts dark, jumpy images
captured by security cameras, video cameras, and even police car cameras
into clear, stable images that can hopefully reveal more clues about a

Initial video of Brucia’s abductor showed that he had tattoos on both of
his forearms, but the picture was not clear enough to tell exactly what
those tattoos were, according to Mjr. Kevin Gooding of the Sarasota
County Sheriff’s Department. That is when the NASA team stepped in.

On Thursday, a jury in Sarasota found Jospeh Smith, 39, guilty in the
kidnapping, raping, and strangling of Brucia. The video footage from the
car wash played a large part in the prosecutors’ case.

VISAR was first used by law enforcement after the 1996 bombing at the
Summer Olympics in Atlanta that killed two and injured hundreds more. The
FBI had obtained a homemade video of the bombing, but the tape was taken
by a handheld recorder at night and was of poor quality. The Southeast
Bomb Task Force of the FBI asked if anyone at NASA could help improve the
video’s clarity.

Hathaway and Meyer stepped up to the plate. Meyer’s job at NASA is to
process weather satellite images and Hathaway’s job is to use video
stabilization techniques to enhance pictures of the sun. The two felt
that they could use similar NASA technology to assist the FBI in their
case. The scientists had little more than 13 seconds worth of bombing
tape to work with — about 400 frames. After a long process of trial and
error, they were eventually able to stabilize, sharpen, and brighten the
images. NASA said the results revealed important details about the bomb
and the explosion.

“At NASA, we routinely take satellite images of storm clouds and enhance
them to see what is going on in the atmosphere,” Meyer said. “Looking for
clues about what is happening in a storm is similar to being a detective
and finding out what took place at a crime scene.”

Hathaway also helped enhance security camera videotape made during the
kidnapping of a Minnesota teenager. In an intensive effort, the FBI and
police worked with Hathaway to identify the abductor and try to find the
teenager. Her killer has since been tried and convicted. The video was
key evidence used in his capture.

Hathaway and Meyer’s efforts in correcting the FBI video surpassed
existing image-correction technology. The video correction methods
currently in use could not compensate for the effects of zoom or tilt, as
Hathaway and Meyer did. By steadying and reducing the noise in the
images, they brought out a wealth of information, revealing new,
previously obscured details.

VISAR was used to enhance launch images of the Columbia space shuttle,
allowing NASA engineers to see a chunk of foam insulation fall from the
shuttle’s fuel tank and hit the spacecraft’s  wing. The foam insulation
was later blamed for the disintegration of the Columbia over Texas on
February 1, 2003, killing seven astronauts.

Intergraph Government Solutions of Huntsville, Alabama, has a licensing
agreement with NASA for the use of the VISAR technology. The company has
installed VISAR in its Video Analyst System, which features
broadcast-quality video editing and enhancement for law enforcement and
security companies.

Criminal Investigations by NASA, using VISAR

1996, GA: Olympic Park Bombing

1998, TN: Mike Bell Murder

1999, MN: Katie Poirier Abduction

2000, CA: Russian Mafia Gold Heist

2002, UT: Elizabeth Smart Kidnapping

2002, NV: Convenience Store Robbery

2004. FL: Carlie Brucia Abduction

© 2005 Law & Order.
© 2005 Sci-Tech Today.

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