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Start-ups bring new tech to police forces

24 October 2013   •   3 minute read

Immediately after his team pulled suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev out of a boat in Watertown, Mass., this past April, Chief Joe Cafarelli of the Revere PD and North Metro SWAT Team had to figure out whether another perpetrator might be inside the vessel, hiding under the tarp.

Airborne thermal imaging suggested that the coast was clear, but officers on the ground didn’t know that, and didn’t have any equipment to help them figure it out on their own. The only way to tell was by actually peeking into the boat — a move that would leave officers in a vulnerable position.

Plenty of technology exists to help law enforcement officers in tricky situations, but the gear is often too bulky and expensive to be practical. That’s starting to change as small start-ups break into the exclusive club of law enforcement and security supply.

Bounce Imaging is one such start-up. The Boston-based company is developing a throwable camera ball, designed for situations just like the one Cafarelli encountered.

Inside its rubberized plastic shell, the ball contains six cameras that provide a 360-degree field of view. It shoots in black-and-white, which is more sensitive than color in poor lighting, and uses near-infrared lamps to provide illumination without revealing the ball to the human eye. An officer with an Android phone or tablet can view the image remotely, without having to enter a potentially hostile situation.

The concept isn’t entirely new: Remington makes a throwable camera ball, but at $5,500 a pop, it can be pricey for municipal budgets. Bounce Imaging, which has just five full-time employees, says that its cameras will cost “less than $1,000” at launch. As production scales up, the company says the price should drop down toward $500.

Cafarelli puts it simply: “I’d rather lose a $500 item than a $5,000 item.”

Lower price points aren’t all that start-ups have to offer. They also tend to think outside the box and take advantage of technologies that old-guard providers are hesitant to employ.

Mark43 is a software company that grew from a 2012 class project at Harvard University. The group’s goal was to improve on the decades-old crime-tracking software used by the Massachusetts State Police. Today, its reporting tools are used in the field in Springfield, Mass., and Los Angeles.

Mark43’s software is decidedly more modern than the clunky, laptop-only database programs most departments use. It works with iOS and Android mobile devices, and analyzes gang data. Users have said it’s a huge time saver, and yes, it’s also cheaper than most law enforcement software.

But if a small team could create a better product in barely a year, why has it taken so long for someone to try something new? For one thing, it’s tough to get new police products and services vetted. For another, small companies have traditionally been seen as a risk.

If an entire department commits to a system, it would be a major setback if the developer went out of business. But Crouch says that backing from Spark Capital, which also invests in Twitter and Foursquare, gave Mark43 a boost.

Both companies are taking unusual steps to gain departments’ trust and understand their needs. Mark43 developers did ride-alongs to serve warrants in areas with gang activity, and Bounce Imaging made changes to its camera ball based on officer feedback.

Dave Young, CCO of Bounce Imaging, says he learned from his contacts that “simplicity is an asset.” Fewer moving parts means fewer things can break, and a simpler interface has a shallower learning curve.

Bounce also utilizes Formlabs 3-D printers to pump out new prototype shells on short notice and at low cost. Such sophisticated technology was simply not accessible to a company of Bounce’s size even two years ago, and it’s having a transformative effect on many hardware start-ups.

It’s too early to say whether these new start-ups signal a widespread change in law-enforcement innovation, or if they’re simply exceptions to the rule of big players and stagnating bureaucracy. But one thing is for sure: Cops are reaping the benefits.