Persistent Surveillance for Large-Scale Security

How sophisticated software and high-performance computing can help protect hundreds of thousands of people at large-scale world events.

The Rio Olympics ended safely and, thankfully, terrorism did not rear its ugly head. It is estimated over 600,000 people and 11,000 athletes from around the world descended on Rio for the Summer Olympics, which made for a ripe terrorism and crime environment. Sophisticated technology was employed at the Olympics to counter both terrorism and crime. Aerostat-based persistent surveillance was one such tool and required high-technology computers and software to be effective in keeping people safe.

Large Venue Security through Persistent Surveillance

What do the Olympics, World Cup, Indy 500, Boston Marathon and the Republican/Democratic National Conventions have in common? These are all large, prestigious and crowded events with high potential for crime and terrorist attacks. These kinds of large-scale gatherings take place around the world every year. While crime is deplorable, it’s terrorism, associated with massive loss of life, that keeps the security people awake at night. The 2016 Olympics held in Rio, Brazil, is the latest example of this kind of event.

Global terrorism is on the rise with some recent spectacular successes in the name of terror.

The Global Terrorism Database, which is maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, lists approximately 1,200 terror attacks per month in 50 countries in which people are injured or killed. Most of these attacks occur in Muslim countries against rival sects or the government and are not exported to European countries, the United States or South America.

But violence is not constrained to Muslim countries. The November 13, 2015, coordinated attacks in Paris killed 130 people and injured 368. Seven attackers died. On the morning of March 22, 2016, three bombs were detonated in Brussels in a coordinated attack killing 32 people and injuring 300. Three terrorists were killed. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for both attacks.

July 3, 2016, a Fedayeen suicide bomber killed 292 and injured 212 in a market in Iraq. July 1, 2016, seven terrorists killed 22 people in a café who could not quote from the Quran. And the list goes on and on: Turkey, Bangladesh, even Saudi Arabia. One killed here, five there, 300 in Libya and so forth, many by ISIS. Single terrorists acting alone or sophisticated coordinated attacks with guns, knives and suicide bombs.

The Olympics are a prime target for terror. In 1972, the Munich massacre was an attack during the German Olympics in which eleven Israeli Olympic team members were killed by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. This is considered the first terrorist attack during the Olympics and shocked the world. The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) published a report “Terrorism and the Olympics: Sochi, Russia, 2014” in which they analyzed terrorist activity for a period of six months prior to the Games and during the time the Games were held. They found “In four locations the total number of fatalities during the Olympic period was lower than the comparison period the previous year. In six locations, the total number of fatalities during the Olympic period was higher than the comparison period.” This bolstered the concern in the current terrorism environment for sophisticated coordinated attacks during the Rio Olympics. Lessons, strategy and tactics learned during this Olympics will be applied to future Olympics to keep them safe.

Figure 1: Olympic Related Terrorist Activity

Figure 1: Olympic Related Terrorist Activity

In November, 2015, an alleged Islamic State (ISIS) operative claimed one of the group’s “wolf packs” was already inside Brazil. Maxime Hauchard, a French national identified as an executioner in ISIS propaganda videos, tweeted “Brazil, you are our next target.” Officials had admitted ISIS militants could stage attacks on the game venues, the athletes or the expected crowds. One complication was that infrastructure, including roads and parking, were not completed in time for the Games, forcing crowds further outside the security perimeter. Since July 21, 2016, Brazilian police arrested 12 people suspected of planning terrorist acts in concert with ISIS during the Olympics, though it was reported this was not a sophisticated effort.

On the positive side, there have been no major terrorist attacks in Brazil in recent years. There is no apparent indigenous political strife that would be cause for a home-grown terror attack. Brazil has long regarded itself as an unlikely target of extremists thanks to its historical standing as a non-aligned, multicultural nation free from enemies. But, because of that relative calm, the Brazilian security forces are better trained at combating organized crime than terror. To improve their anti-terrorism skills, they had been working with specialist French SWAT teams to simulate attack scenarios such as a lone suicide bomber in the subway system.

In addition to terrorism concerns, Rio is known for street crime and has one of the highest murder rates in the world. In 2014, 58,000 people met violent deaths in Brazil, up 5% over the previous year. The government reported 2,100 murders in Rio through May of 2016. The murder rate in Rio is 54 per 100,000 people, while that number for Western Europe is typically about one. Gangs of youths roam the beaches openly robbing people, and grab-and-run is common during the day all around the city.

Automatic weapons are readily available in Rio, and the police are undertrained and underfunded to deal with the rising crime, up 13% over the same period in 2015.

The influx of naïve tourists from outside Brazil will fuel that crime, and the criminal gangs are on record as anticipating this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There were multiple reports of Olympic athletes being robbed. Two members of the Australian Paralympic sailing squad were robbed of their bicycles at gunpoint at 7:30am near their accommodation in Rio. Previously three Spanish sailors had been robbed at gunpoint.

Brazil had reportedly deployed 85,000 police, security personnel and troops to provide security for the Games. It is widely reported security expenditures for the 2016 Olympics exceeded $1B dollars while security for the London Games exceeded $2B. This is a very different world than existed in 1972 when only $2 million dollars was spent on security for the Munich Games.

Security Technology at the Olympics

Olympic officials were taking any threat to the Games very seriously and used all available technology to gain any advantage they could:

  • Biometric technology for access controlled areas.
  • Facial-recognition technology to watch for known terrorists and criminals.
  • Devices to sniff the air for bomb-making materials and biologic and chemical weapons.

With over 600,000 people in Rio for the Olympics, technology that can monitor large numbers of people provided an advantage. After the award of the Games to Rio, the mayor of Rio opened the Rio Operations Center (ROC) in 2010. Also for the Games, the Integrated Center of Command and Control (ICCC) was opened. These centers monitor, manage and model the city, relying on networks to capture data. The ROC serves principally a civilian function while the ICCC serves the military. The ROC was built in conjunction with IBM and is used as a showcase for the future of smart cities. The rooms are similar with large arrays of wall-mounted monitors and rows of analysts responsible for monitoring events. The analysists view social media streams for neighborhoods, street-level camera feeds, and traffic feeds.

They also compile on-scene reports and other parameters which make up the pulse of a city. They can also monitor the live and historical feeds from the overhead persistent surveillance systems and deploy security personnel to appropriate areas. Experts from other nations including the United States, Britain, France and Spain provided antiterrorism assistance.

All-Seeing Eyes

One of the more high-tech devices used for security was persistent surveillance by sophisticated cameras mounted high above the venues. Persistent surveillance, as defined by the military, is a collection strategy that emphasizes the ability of some collection systems to linger on demand in an area to detect, locate, characterize, identify, track, target, and possibly provide battle damage assessment and retargeting in near- or real-time. The military was the original customer for persistent surveillance with successful deployments in Afghanistan and other combat arenas. These deployments have saved countless lives by interdicting the enemy as they place bombs along roads or move enemy combatants.

Figure 2: Aerostat Camera Platform Over Rio Olympic Village 2016

Figure 2: Aerostat Camera Platform Over Rio Olympic Village 2016

In plain English, “linger on demand” means having a UAV or drone orbiting an area of interest with high resolution cameras on the UAV monitoring a large area on the ground 24/7. People and vehicles can be tracked in real time. The system can also act as a time machine, allowing video data to be rewound to track where a person of interest might have originated, say a safe house. Logos Technology manufactured the first of these systems to be deployed by the military, the Kestrel. The Kestrel uses sophisticated computers and data storage by Chassis Plans and was mounted on a fixed balloon or aerostat over military bases or cities.

London might be close to persistent surveillance with their ground-level camera system. This system was instrumental in tracking the four people responsible for the 2005 London subway bombing where three suicide bombs were detonated by three different people 50 seconds apart. A fourth bomb was detonated on a double-decker bus. The authorities were able to review archived video to track the bombers back in time to where they came from.

For the Rio Summer Olympics, three aerostats were deployed to provide unblinking surveillance over the venues from above and covering the whole of Rio with high-resolution imagery. The high-resolution surveillance camera system can be carried by a relatively small fixed balloon or aerostat floating over 200 meters above the ground. Deployment at the Rio Olympics is the first time this technology has been sold outside the U.S. other than for U.S. military use. Previous systems were deployed strictly by the U.S. Armed Forces. The aerostats can stay aloft 24 hours a day and only need a small amount of helium every three or four days to account for leakage. These systems provide Wide-Area Motion Imagery or WAMI.

The camera system combines a wide-angle view with the ability to zoom in on any point at the operator’s command. Up to six zoomed views can be commanded at any time and shared to multiple workstations. It provides a 360-degree field of view and covers 36 to 43 square miles. The image is updated three times per second and the resolution is optimized to follow vehicles and people. A dedicated narrow focus camera similar to that mounted on news helicopters providing 15 times 4K resolution can be directed to watch a smaller area of interest for much higher resolution in real time that can identify individual people or read license plates. The effective resolution of the main camera system is 440 megapixels. Compare that to an ultra-high-end professional DLSR camera providing a 50 megapixel image.

Persistent surveillance has applicability in disaster relief, port and border surveillance, humanitarian assistance, large sporting events, any mission which requires high-resolution real-time imagery of a large area. While born of a need to protect troops, the companies building this technology are working with government agencies to expand the applicability to more civilian purposes. In all these applications, the three technology pillars are the camera system, algorithms, and sophisticated computers. The solutions supported by these pillars can be especially useful in environments where natural disasters demand that projects are constructed quickly.

Monitoring Algorithms

Just having that much data would be impossible for any number of operators to monitor in real time. A very sophisticated software package running on a high‐performance computer is an integral part of the system and allows for automated monitoring of defined areas looking for motion and anomalies. Alerts can be automatically passed to the operators and other cameras slaved to that location for better imagery. A handful of operators can monitor the entire city and are able to direct on-the-ground security forces to trouble spots.

A key feature of the software is that all the video streams are written to disk for later retrieval as required. Say a bomb is detonated at a crowded location. The software can be used to zoom into that area, pick out possible perpetrators, and follow them after the blast for immediate apprehension or backwards in time to determine where they came from, possibly averting future attacks.

Figure 3: Chassis Plans M5U2723 5U Storage Server Optimized for Persistent Surveillance

Figure 3: Chassis Plans M5U2723 5U Storage Server Optimized for Persistent Surveillance

This software is running on a custom high-performance computer system designed and built by Chassis Plans, a San Diego based manufacturer of military and industrial computers. The computer provides state of the art processing with dual Xeon processors, multiple GPU server plug-in cards and 22 built-in hard drives. Sufficient hard drive space is able to store a month’s worth of video, so the entire duration of the Games is stored.

Off the shelf commercial computer systems would not have survived the harsh environment expected during the Games. The computer systems are mounted below the balloons in a van exposed to the elements. Rio can be very hot and humid, which would be detrimental to commercial grade computers.

The Ultimate Goal Realized

Everybody involved wanted to see the 2016 Summer Olympics be trouble free with no terrorism and minimal crime. Brazil, with the help of many other countries, was prepared to stop acts before they happened and to recover quickly should the unthinkable occur. Having an unblinking eye in the sky allowed real-time coordination of ground resources to focus on trouble spots so manpower was not wasted chasing ghosts. The goal was to add another Olympics to the Global Terrorism Database chart with no terrorism listed for this Olympics.

It was widely believed that a successful major terrorist attack at the Olympics might be the end of the Games. Thankfully that decision will not have to be made until the next Games in four years present yet another opportunity for terrorists.


headshotDavid Lippincott is Chief Technology Officer, Chassis Plans. He founded Chassis Plans to provide custom industrial and military computer designs allowing customers to have these computers manufactured locally. The company morphed from an engineering design firm to a full-service manufacturer designing and manufacturing highly regarded rugged computer and LCD display systems to all branches of the military as well as all the prime contractors and leading industrial companies. Chassis Plans is the vendor of record in many high-profile programs within the military as well as transportation infrastructure.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google
Extension Media websites place cookies on your device to give you the best user experience. By using our websites, you agree to placement of these cookies and to our Privacy Policy. Please click here to accept.