The system employs approximately 115 psi to launch the StarChase tracking projectile approximately 25 feet. This manufacturer-supplied photo shows a single-cannon set up. Photos JP Molnar
The front of the tracking projectile strongly adheres to the back of any car and communicates location information back to the pursuing patrol car. Photos JP Molnar
The launcher sits behind the patrol car’s custom grill and contains two tracking projectiles.Photos JP Molnar
The StarChase Pursuit Management System’s control panel easily fits in a center console of a Crown Vic.Photos JP Molnar
LAPD Officer Jason Liguori holds the StarChase projectile next to the vehicle-mounted launcher.Photo Dale Stockton
In its Nov. 12 edition, Time Magazine chose StarChase as one of the “inventions to look for” in 2008.
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High-speed pursuits are the bane of law enforcement. Each year, more than 10,000 of these heart-racing chases occur, and the negative consequences can prove catastrophic. Sometimes, they result in an intersection crash that kills an innocent civilian. Other times, an officer is injured or killed by the violator or another resulting event. Even the media isn t safe. In a recent event in the desert Southwest, for instance, two television news helicopters collided in mid-air while following a highjacked car, resulting in multiple deaths.
Still, despite all the perils, pursuits are necessary under certain conditions because, well, bad guys drive cars, and really bad guys don t want to hang around when you attempt to stop them.
Like many of you, I ve had my fair share of pursuits over the years. Some of my violators have been real criminals driving stolen cars or hiding mobile meth labs, but most of these violators have simply been either drunk, scared or under the belief that an outstanding misdemeanor or felony warrant was just-cause to flee.
Admittedly, each pursuit generated a good deal of the adrenaline we all seek when getting into this job. Those same pursuits have also scared the crap out of me. I ve had thoughts of the violator killing someone, me killing someone or worse. Honestly, I like my house, and I want the title to remain in my name.
These thoughts, as well as the risk to the public outweighing the level of offense, have made me terminate a few pursuits, but, as cops, we always want to get the bad guy. Some agencies have taken this decision process out of our hands by outlawing pursuits altogether. Others have implemented highly-restrictive pursuit policies that allow officers to chase only the most egregious criminals. The problem with that, of course, is that a person running from the police after committing a stop sign violation probably isn t running because he doesn t want a ticket.
In an ideal world, we could track all offenders in a non-pursuit environment. This would allow officers to keep a bead on a moving suspect without introducing the dangerous aspects normally associated with pursuits.
Recent advances in technology have introduced GPS devices into patrol cars, long-haul trucks, delivery vans and fire apparatus primarily for resource allocation and cargo tracking. Some in-car GPS navigation systems or interactive applications, such as General Motors On-Star and the Lo-Jack system, provide third-party vehicle tracking when requested.
The dilemma: All of these options require the pre-installation of either hardware or software, or the luck of an officer to find a violator vehicle already with these options. Of course, even then, we don t have a magic ball to look into and say, Hey, this car has a GPS system.
So, it seems the best marriage of this technology and law enforcement would allow officers to create a tracking system on the fly. This would allow instant tracking of a suspect vehicle with minimal risk to the public and help officers catch the violator.
The engineers at StarChase feel the same way. The company, founded in 2001, has developed a GPS-tracking system patrol officers can apply externally to any vehicle. The system, formally known as the StarChase Pursuit Management System, is a patented application that uses three main hardware components and a software interface.
The first mechanical component/element is a compressed-air launcher that mounts on the front of a police vehicle. Resembling the twin-cannon of a fighter jet, the system employs approximately 115 psi to launch the StarChase tracking projectile approximately 25 feet. This may seem like a short distance, but because the distance between a patrol vehicle and a violator s car is shorter than that during an average traffic stop, 25 feet may prove more than adequate. This distance also prevents the projectile from being delivered at a lethal-force level if someone is in its path when launched.
According to Trevor Fischbach, vice president of StarChase, the launcher assembly contains two separate tracking projectiles that sit side-by-side. This provides a backup if the first device fails to attach to the violator vehicle. The launcher uses a green laser dot to increase aiming accuracy. The launcher also talks to the projectiles, allowing them to be used as a GPS tracking device while either resting in the launcher or activated and attached to a violator vehicle. And, the entire assembly fits behind the grill of a Ford Crown Victoria or Dodge Charger.
The system s second part is the control module, which is located on the patrol vehicle s center console and looks like something out of a missile silo. The control panel consists of power switches, launcher-control switches and both an arming and fire switch. When you activate the power, the system laser is activated and projects the aforementioned green laser dot onto the back of the violator vehicle. You can adjust the dot up and down to accommodate vehicle height. Once aimed, you arm the system by pushing a button. Then, either push the fire button inside the car or use a small, remote-control device to activate the projectile.
Fischbach say the remote was added after field testing showed that officers wanted to be able to activate the system from outside the patrol car. This makes sense because many violators wait to run until officers make their approach, or rabbit when officers are up at the suspect vehicle. Once the fire button is pushed, the pneumatics activate, and a projectile is launched.
The projectile is the third hardware component to the StarChase system. It s approximately the size of a large dill pickle and contains a GPS/GSM tracking device wrapped in a plastic body. The rear of the projectile has surface contacts that allow it to communicate with the launcher when in the loaded position, but it s the front of the projectile that is especially fascinating. The front inch or so is made of a wire mesh, similar to steel wool. This allows the projectile to crush when striking a hard surface, cushioning the blow and allowing it to conform to the surface curvature. This is critical when dealing with the many types of automotive designs.
At the very front of the projectile is a proprietary adhesive that, according to Fischbach, is extremely strong. Once the projectile is launched, it crashes into the rear of the target vehicle and instantly adheres itself to the surface. The tracking signal activates, allowing the pursuing officer to back off to a safe position. The projectile then transmits a ping with its location approximately every three seconds. At this point, the system s software takes over.
The StarChase software is simple in that it displays the location and movement of the tracking module in real time. Fischbach says the system is 100 percent controllable by department administrators, including dispatchers. Because there s no proprietary hardware or software needed by a dispatch center, the tracking software can be applied universally. Fischbach says departments can also use their own tracking software if they have GPS capabilities. An interesting bonus is that the tracking system will automatically notify up to five individuals through pager or cell phone when activated. This can help officers meet department policy by notifying immediate supervisors when engaging in an apprehension.
So, given its purported capabilities, the real question is, does it work? The StarChase Pursuit Management System is currently in beta testing by the Los Angeles Police Department, with the launcher and projectile being evaluated in a closed-course environment. It s also being tested by the Florida Highway Patrol in beta mode, as well as in Virginia. Fischbach says the reviews have been positive, and additional features such as the remote control have come directly from feedback during testing. At press time, the system was scheduled to go on sale in November 2007. Because the system is still undergoing fine tuning, contact StarChase directly to get pricing information.
The introduction of the StarChase launcher and projectile system combines the benefits of GPS/GSM technology with the immediacy of addressing a fleeing violator. It also provides another option for pursuit management in a manner that minimizes the risk to the public while preserving the opportunity for apprehension.
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In addition to the launching system, StarChase also offers discrete standalone GPS/GSM transmitters you can use in any number of ways. The tracking module, about the size of a deck of cards, can be tracked in the same manner as the launcher projectiles, but it isn t subject to the same mounting restrictions. Fischbach says these transmitters work well as a low-cost automatic vehicle location system and can be hardwired directly into a vehicle.