There’s a new set of eyes watching over the city – or one eye, specifically.
A new $60,000 AutoVu licence plate recognition system is now in place, fastened on top of the bylaw department’s Ford Escape.
The sleek camera, only 1.65 inches tall, has the ability to read up to 1,000 plates per minute.
“This technology will make us more efficient and allow us to monitor more zones,” said bylaw manager Dave Pruden, standing next to the vehicle at the Public Safety Building in an interview on Tuesday afternoon. “It will free up time for other possible parking violations.”
The camera was approved by city council in 2011, as part of the Downtown Parking Management Plan. It is currently being used by bylaw officers, in addition to chalking parking zones by hand, but tickets won’t be issued through the new system alone until June 9, a grace period to let residents become aware of the technology.
With more efficient monitoring of parking spaces, the new system will free up short-term parking spaces downtown and allow better access to businesses and services, said Pruden.
The camera can also be used in situations other than parking infractions, such as an Amber Alert sent out over a potential child abduction, wherein any vehicle in question could have its plate entered into the system, allowing officers to quickly scan for it.
Pruden said residents don’t need to worry about the technology being overly intrusive: the lens is angled down and takes two photos, one tightly zoomed onto the licence plate and a second, slightly wider angle photo.
“It doesn’t pick up images of people, it doesn’t record video, it just takes the two photos,” he said.
The information is then relayed to the officer’s computer and is limited to a timestamp and the GPS location of the vehicle, “digitally chalking” the vehicle, but no names or further information is recorded.
On Tuesday morning, the vehicle patrolled three zones and found no violations, which Pruden said was uncommon.
“I think people are extra aware right now with the media attention,” he said, adding that the vehicle received “a few funny looks.”
The read rate of the camera is extremely high, meaning that even in poor and extreme conditions it’s still able to accurately identify licence plates.
While dirt and snow accumulation may obscure the view, the camera overcomes this with “fuzzy matching” technology, which analyzes incomplete licence plate reads and alerts the officer of any potential matches.
The technology has come a long way in the last few years, said Pruden, describing a much larger rear-mounted camera of the past.
“With this technology officers are no longer going to be walking through traffic, they are no longer going to be bending down at the back of vehicles. It makes things safer,” he said.
The camera should last at least five years, and potentially much longer, depending on usage.
As the camera passes over vehicles it sets off an audible “bing” inside the officer’s vehicle, alerting them that a plate has been read.
When the officer returns for a second pass, the camera will compare the position of the vehicles and those found to be in violation of time restraints or other restrictions will be flagged to the operator.
The camera, a SharpX, is manufactured by Canadian company Genetec, which is based in Montreal.
Currently, similar technology is being used in the city of Guelph, Ont., as well as Aspen, Colorado, and Brigham Young University in Utah.
In Guelph, the camera operates in a 20-block radius of the downtown core, reading around 654 on-street spaces, while BYU has three designated visitor lots, which see more than 300,000 annual visitors.
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