Sarasota Herald-Tribune November 29, 2001
Made in Manatee: spy cameras
by Michael Pollick
If a military organization wanted to read the name on a soldier's uniform from 500 yards away at night, it might buy one of the $300,000 airborne video cameras made by Aerial Films Inc. The built-in heat sensor on the same camera could be used to spot a plume of invisible exhaust floating heavenward from the vent on a live-in cave.
Ken Sanborn, president of the Manatee County company, is not in a position to say whether Aerial Films' highly specialized Gyro-Cams are being used in the hills of Afghanistan to hunt for terrorist Osama Bin Laden. But it is clear that the U.S. military has bought Aerial Film's Gyro-Cams and is putting them to good use.
"I would say that with the military end of it, we do have cameras overseas," Sanborn told the Herald-Tribune on Wednesday. "I am very cautious in what I say about it. This technology is being used in places like Afghanistan."
The Gyro-Cams are Aerial Films' main stock in trade. They are expensive, specialized video cameras that can be mounted on the belly of a helicopter or airplane to provide shake-free images. Most U.S. television stations that use helicopters to gather news operate cameras made by the Manatee company, which moved to Southwest Florida from New Jersey a year and a half ago.
For the last three years, Aerial Films also has been working with the federal government, which asked the company to design a camera that has the same stability and can also see in the dark.
The company came up with a camera that can shoot in color, or see in the dark, or take video pictures in pitch-black conditions using only the heat emitted by objects, so-called "thermal imaging."
"If they are not using this company's products, they are certainly using similar products," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a small Alexandria, Va.-based think tank specializing in such matters.
Every two years, the Marine Corps holds a competition at which companies show off their latest night vision or thermal-imaging systems at its Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va.
Aerial Films participated in the most recent competition, held in June, Sanborn acknowledged. For several nights in a row, the Marines turned off all the lights on the airfield, then had soldiers try to hide themselves from the aircraft passing overhead.
That was where Sanborn said his crew was able to read the name tag on a soldier's uniform from 500 yards away. "We caught one Marine making cell calls," Sanborn said.
Adding to the formidable nature of the triple-sensor Gyro-Cam is its laser illuminator. Say the night vision sees the murky image of a vehicle on the side of a road. But what is it? How many troops are attached to it?
The flight crew has a laser light that cannot be seen by the unaided human eye. They point it at the target, and in the greenish glare of the night-vision device, it's almost as if the vehicle were sitting in the afternoon sun.
Sanborn says home-front security will provide an even larger market for his company's spy cameras than the military does now. Aerial Films employs 35 people and generates more than $6 million in revenues each year. Sanborn expects that to grow substantially in the years ahead.
Copyright 2001 Sarasota Herald-Tribune Co.