NASA helps cops catch criminals on Earth with video technology invented by space scientists

September 04, 2000

FBI and other law enforcement officers -- whose investigations are normally down-to-Earth -- recently have been seeking the help of two NASA scientists who study the Sun and storms like hurricanes.

Why are specialists from such different worlds working together?

The NASA researchers -- using their expertise and equipment for analyzing satellite video -- created technology that can dramatically improve TV images including crime scene videos. With law enforcement officers looking over their shoulders, the scientists use their computer software to turn dark, jittery images captured by home video, security systems and video cameras in police cars into clearer, stable images that reveal clues about crimes.

In the last year, Dr. David Hathaway and Paul Meyer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., have worked on about a dozen criminal cases with the police and FBI. Hathaway, a solar physicist, is usually busy studying images of violent explosions on the Sun, and Meyer, an atmospheric scientist, examines hazardous weather conditions on Earth. The scientists' foray into the world of forensics began when they helped the FBI analyze video of the bombing that killed two people and injured hundreds more at the 1996 Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta. Hathaway and Meyer successfully clarified nighttime videotapes made with handheld camcorders, revealing important details about the bomb and the explosion.

Since their first case with the FBI, Hathaway and Meyer have worked over the years to refine the VISAR technology, improving it so that it is now ready to be transferred to companies that produce video enhancement systems for law enforcement, the military and even home computers.

By the end of this year, the FBI and other criminal investigators will be able to use the NASA technology at their own stations. The NASA scientists' invention -- called Video Image Stabilization and Registration, or VISAR -- will be available in a video tracking and enhancement system developed by Intergraph Government Solutions, a subsidiary of Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville. The company has signed a licensing agreement with NASA to use VISAR in its Video Analyst System, which offers broadcast-quality analysis features on Intel-based hardware.

"After analyzing crime video for detectives and seeing the horrible details of some of these crimes, it gives me great satisfaction that police can use NASA technology to put murderers behind bars," said Hathaway.

Hathaway, for example, 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 teen-ager before she was harmed. Police now believe she was killed. This summer, the tape was used as evidence in the trial of a man convicted of the murder. The VISAR system has proved so useful because it is able to correct the effects of jitter, rotation and zoom from frame to frame in video. Once corrected, the registered video images may then be combined to produce clearer images.

"At NASA, we routinely take satellite images of storm clouds and enhance them to see what is going on in the atmosphere," said Meyer. "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."

Commercial interest in licensing the Marshall invention is based on its ability to do more than just remove noise or "snow" from videos. The software also corrects for horizontal and vertical camera motion, as well as rotation and zoom effects. It produces clearer images of moving objects, smoothes jagged edges and enhances still images.

"By adding VISAR to our Video Analyst Workstation, we can now offer the law enforcement, military, intelligence and security communities these powerful capabilities in a comprehensive video analysis system," said Trey McKay, executive manager of Federal Hardware Solutions at Intergraph Government Solutions. "We look forward to working with NASA to integrate this innovative technology to extend our system capabilities and anticipate a significant impact on our customers and the industry as a whole."

Video imagery for defense applications will also be improved through another licensing agreement between NASA and BARCO Inc. Display Systems, of Duluth, Ga. The company is incorporating VISAR into its new computer hardware, designed for real-time video image enhancement, stabilization, and tracking.

"The reconnaissance video imagery made by military vehicles, aircraft and ships traveling in harsh, rugged environments is often shaky and unstable," said Michael Garner, a BARCO new business analyst. "Our defense industry customers will be pleased with the improvements NASA's software makes to reconnaissance and surveillance video."

These two licenses are for exclusive use in Intergraph's and BARCO's existing or new real-time hardware products. Now, NASA is seeking consumer software companies to license VISAR for home computers, said Sammy Nabors of NASA's Technology Transfer Department at the Marshall Center. For instance, to evaluate the use of the video enhancement software for medical purposes, Meyer and Hathaway are working with the Casey Eye Institute at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland through a NASA Space Act Agreement. Officials at the institute have called the initial video evaluations "awesome." Through partnerships with the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health,scientists at the Portland institute use an innovative technique to study video of cell movements in the eye associated with immune system diseases.

"Working with the NASA software, we can answer questions that advance our understanding of processes unique to the eye and our understanding of how the immune system works," said Dr. Stephen R. Planck, associate professor for the Casey Institute. "After NASA enhanced the video, we could see cell movements inside the eye that were undetectable before."

The two Marshall Center scientists have completed test video analyses that show their patent-pending technology can improve home video -- an area that may have the biggest market potential. To encourage companies to manufacture and distribute VISAR software for home computers, NASA recently asked companies to submit license applications and commercialization plans to the Marshall Technology Transfer Department.

"It's amazing to me that software we invented has the potential to be used everyday in home computers across America," said Meyer.

NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center

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