RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
From high above, Randolph's new Skywatch Flyer mobile surveillance tower helps the 902nd Security Forces Squadron keep a watchful eye over the base.
The mobile surveillance tower has a variety of capabilities to watch and record a much wider area than the two operators can on foot.
The tower's most basic advantage is its ability to elevate to more than 25 feet off the ground. In addition to its elevation, the tower's cab has large windows which are darkly tinted and can be slid open. The windows on the right and left are tilted out to allow for a better view below the tower.
If Frank Lloyd Wright designed an airport control tower that was also a passenger ferry or bus, it may resemble the utilitarian look and function of the tower.
Inside the tower's cab is similar to a small cubicle, only it's made of steel, painted white and the fixtures are either bolted or welded together. An air conditioner blasts arctic air into the two-person cab, but a heater near the floor is available for cooler weather. A variety of video monitors, knobs and switches control the flow of information in and out of the cab.
The roof of the tower has a forest of antennas, cameras, lights and weather sensors. A portable hand-held liquid-crystal-display device inside shows data gathered from the roof's weather sensors. It shows temperatures, barometric pressure, humidity, wind speed and other information.
The cameras, lights and other equipment gather information, illuminate or broadcast commands and information.
"You can clearly identify vehicles on [Loop] 1604 from here," said Robert Vickers, 902nd SFS, chief of plans and program, as an image of distant cars traveling on the limited access highway just beyond the western boundary of Randolph. Looking through the window, it's impossible to see 1604 with a naked eye and perfect eyesight in clear weather.
A zooming and rotating charged coupled device video camera is mounted on the front while static CCD video cameras are mounted on the remaining three sides.
A different camera shows the West Gate on another monitor, while other cameras show different views around the tower. Views from four different cameras can be displayed at the same time on an LCD monitor angled above the windows, easily visible to the operator. The layout of the display is similar to what security guards of office buildings see.
Those security guards and convenience store closed circuit cameras don't have the thermal imaging capability of the tower. Standard video images can have thermal images laid over them with varying degrees of opacity, which can be helpful for finding suspects hiding in shadows or out of plain view.
Lights facing slightly downward, mounted on all four sides, illuminate the area around the tower. To reach a little farther, a high powered spot light is mounted on the roof of the cab.
The spotlight "can light up something a mile away," Mr. Vickers said.
He said a plan for adding ground-based radar to the cab is in the works. An additional monitor would take the place of an inside vacant work area below the front window of the cab.
A camera shows a wide-angle view below the cab for safety reasons and also as an added visual layer of security.
Speakers mounted on all four sides of the cab's exterior can address a crowd with commands on all four sides at once, or any combination. The speakers can also loudly sound sirens and wails, like a police car, loudly enough to disburse a crowd.
Being able to select which speakers broadcast can greatly reduce confusion and make commands and instructions more clear.
"We need to let the crowd know where to go quickly," Mr. Vickers said.
The tower's manufacturer offers the option of ballistics resistant construction or the lighter weight and lower cost of more standard construction.
Mr. Vickers said "They have the towers up-armored in [olive drab] and desert tan, and are used in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Below, on the tower's base, a diesel generator supplies the power for the hydraulics and electricity. The generator can run continuously for about five days on a tank of fuel. The hydraulics can be operated manually in the unlikely event of an electrical failure.
The manufacturer of the tower said "regardless of the location or application, only one person is required to set up and deploy a unit."