A damaged light-rail station in Shuafat..
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Following rioting in east Jerusalem over the last weeks, which resulted in two destroyed light-rail stations and multiple arrests, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Wednesday announced an unprecedented police aerial surveillance pilot program to monitor at-risk stops from the sky.
Employing unmanned aerial vehicles, which look like miniature helicopters, would provide police with an invaluable preventative tool that will curtail violence and expedite arrests and convictions in court, Barkat said.
“The challenge we have is to get an aerial perspective on the light rail’s route, and currently ground-level surveillance doesn’t give us a top-down view, which can help us see violence and what is going on,” he said.
“As far as I know, this is the first program of its kind.”
Noting the destruction the riots caused to light-rail stations in east Jerusalem’s Shuafat and Beit Hanina neighborhoods, Barkat said it is imperative that police take all available measures to ensure residents’ safety.
“This pilot project has two goals,” he said. “One is to provide extra security to residents through surveillance, and the other is to use a deterrent to make people think twice before being caught on camera and brought to trial.”
The mayor said his initiative was well received by police when he presented the idea on Friday, and that the helicopters, which are equipped with high definition and thermal imaging cameras for night, are already in the air.
To expedite the process, Barkat received special permission from the police and the civil aviation authority to fly the UAVs over populated areas.
“This has been aligned with police for the first time in Israel,” he said.
“Now it’s up in the air and working, giving us a very good perspective.”
The biggest challenge facing the project, Barkat said, is synchronizing and integrating the surveillance into the police’s current security infrastructure.
“It’s a new ability that we didn’t have before, and we have to make sure the relevant people are working together,” he said.
The mayor went on to note that the UAVs could have far-reaching implications for securing the city in terms of monitoring all forms of violence.
“The police have a high interest to make it work, and we are discussing using it for other purposes,” he said.
“We have a few ideas of how to expand this,” he said.
According to Ran Krauss, founder of Bladeworx, the aerial robotic photography company that manufactures the miniature helicopters, the city has purchased six aircrafts, which are roughly 30 centimeters in diameter each, for the pilot program.
“The aircrafts we’re using for this project are very similar to helicopters since they can hover and show specific images,” he said.
“The reason we’re using such small models is because they are over populated areas.”
Krauss added that the program is unprecedented.
“This is the first time in the world that a commercial UAV is being used over a populated area, and puts the Jerusalem Municipality in a unique place,” he said.
“At first I didn’t think it would happen because so much authorization is needed, but the mayor’s motivation brought the project to life.”
Krauss said Barkat got approval within 36 hours and that the UAVs have since been operating over Shuafat and Beit Hanina. He said each fully equipped UAV can cost up to $30,000 and is monitored via a screen at an area police station day and night.
“We’ve basically been living in the police station since it was approved, and have 10 people working in two shifts to monitor developments which are sent in real time by video to phones and computers,” he said.