The Fleet 2 in-car camera was still in development when Axon hired Blake Bullock to start working on Fleet 3. Even before the now-Director of Fleet Products came on board, he had a pretty radical idea.
“When I first heard about the role, I thought, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be cool if the system could read license plates in addition to capturing video?’” Bullock says. “I had seen officers typing in license plate numbers in their vehicles and it was just an intuitive notion that came to me that those cameras ought to be able to read license plates.”
Turns out, Axon was thinking along the same lines and was already investigating automated license plate recognition (ALPR). After joining Axon, Bullock set out to better understand how police officers work, and over the course of four months, he visited 20 different agencies across the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
“I saw firsthand how police officers on patrol interact with the cameras and the computers in their cars,” Bullock says. “I also had the opportunity to hear their thoughts on ALPR.”
Officers across the board valued ALPR as a policing tool, but only a fraction of agency vehicles were outfitted with the technology. Cost was the No. 1 deterrent, with the equipment alone running anywhere from $15,000 to $23,000 to outfit a single vehicle with ALPR. And then there are the soft costs for the time and skills it takes to install the system, train officers to use it, and then maintain it.
An unprecedented camera solution
Bullock returned from his travels even more determined to find an effective way to integrate ALPR technology into Fleet 3’s in-car video system. Little did he know that would be a huge undertaking.
“I came to learn that the cameras that do license plate recognition are very different from the cameras that do evidence capture,” he says. “Current ALPR systems consist of three or four bulky weatherproof cameras that are mounted on the exterior of the vehicle. They must be aimed carefully in specific directions to capture passing license plates, and they’re equipped with infrared technology so that they can work in the dark. They’re effective, but costly.”
In order to incorporate ALPR technology into Fleet 3, the development team would need to build a new camera from the ground up. Bullock leaned on the Axon imaging team in Finland, which had experience running simulations and experiments, and together they came up with the optimum approach that captures plates on moving vehicles 50 feet in front of the car, across three lanes of traffic and in a variety of lighting conditions. Their solution was to use a 4K camera, which, until now, had been unheard of in this field. The 4K camera captures the license plates with a resolution that’s high enough that the planned artificial intelligence (AI) engine is able to recognize the characters on the license plates.
Despite this achievement, there was another challenge: The ideal optics for plate recognition resulted in a field of view that was too narrow for capturing video evidence of the whole scene in front of the patrol car.
Two cameras in one
“In the end, we designed a dual-view camera that’s got one camera module with a 4K image sensor for ALPR, and one camera module with a wide-angle HD image sensor for capturing panoramic video. In doing that, we were able to incorporate video evidence capture and license plate recognition using one compact in-car camera.”
The single camera mounted inside the cabin allowed the development team to keep costs down, making it much more affordable for agencies to have ALPR capabilities in many more vehicles.
“With this approach, agencies can add ALPR to every vehicle in their fleet, and capture eight times more plate reads for the same spend over using traditional ALPR systems," Bullock says. “That could mean eight times as many hits on Amber alerts, Silver alerts, wanted vehicles, etc.”
With the launch of Fleet 3, agencies have access to a truly innovative in-car video system that fully integrates ALPR, enabling them to multiply their efforts without increasing spending.
Capture more information with Axon’s Fleet 3 in-car video system with integrated ALPR. Contact Axon today to learn more.