When the Olympic Games begin in about 48 hours in Rio de Janeiro, billions of people are expected to watch athletes from countries around the world compete.
But also watching over the Olympic and Paralympic events will be a set of futuristic, balloon-mounted surveillance camera systems capable of monitoring a wide swath of the city in high resolution and in real-time.
Initially developed for use by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan by Fairfax, Virginia-based Logos Technologies, the technology is sold under the nameSimera, and offers live aerial views of a large area, or what the company calls "wide-area motion imagery," captured from a balloon tethered some 200 meters above the ground. The system's 13 cameras make it possible for operators to record detailed, 120-megapixel imagery of the movement of vehicles and pedestrians below in an area up to 40 square kilometers, depending on how high the balloon is deployed, and for up to three days at a time.
The Brazil sale, which includes four systems operated under an $8 million contract, marks the first export of Simera, and the first time such as system will be deployed by a non-U.S. government at a large-scale event, the company says. "Simera was built late last year and we tested it this past February and then immediately sold four of them to Brazil," says Doug Rombough, Logos’s vice president of business development.
Rombough compares Simera to a live city-wide Google Maps combined with TiVo, explaining that it lets authorities not only view ground-level activities in real time but also rewind through saved images to do things like track a suspicious vehicle—for instance, one that departs a crime scene—back to its origin.
The government has announced it will deploy 47,000 security guards, 65,000 police, and 20,000 armed service personnel to patrol the Games, which have raised security concerns amid soaring crime rates in the city and a global burst in terrorist activity. Last week, Brazilian police arrested 12 people alleged to be planning an ISIS-inspired attack on the Games, which have been said to be a target discussed in jihadist chat groups.
The system evolved from technologies Logos previously supplied to the Defense Department for use in combat zones, including the Constant Hawk aircraft-mounted surveillance camera system and Kestrel, a similar balloon-mounted sensor system that’s been used in Afghanistan to monitor activity near about a dozen U.S. bases.
There, the company says the technology helped U.S. troops monitor potentially threatening activity as it evolved over days, enabling officials, for instance, to track the movement of suspicious vehicles in the vicinity of an attack. But as Logos's technology continues to evolve and become easier and cheaper to deploy in civilian scenarios, it's likely to raise more questions about the appropriate balance between security and privacy.
Over time, the company’s sensor systems have become lighter and easier to deploy: Early Constant Hawk systems weighed about 1,500 pounds, Kestrel units weighed around 150 pounds, and Simera systems just 40 pounds, expanding the range of aircraft that can carry the devices. Including the ground-based equipment necessary to control and monitor the cameras, the Simera system—which generally costs $500,000 to $900,000 per unit, depending on features— can be transported in a single vehicle and put into an operation in under three hours, according to Logos.
And as the company's systems have gotten lighter in weight and easier to deploy, the range of potential use cases has expanded. In addition to policing large events and patrolling borders and ports, the company hopes its system could prove useful in supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions