Imagine a crime scene's evidence lay just below, at the bottom of a lake — not the optimal environment for evidence discovery and retrieval. An investigator brings out a submersible remote-operated vehicle (ROV) and sends it into the murky depths, and soon a viewing monitor shows eerie images of drowned victims on the lake bottom.
Sounds almost scripted — like it was written for a television show. It was. CBS's CSI episode, "Gum Drops," which aired October 20, 2005, featured the VideoRay ROV. The characters used the tool just as described; an investigator guided it to locate the episode's victims.
Months later, in real life, the same submersible device was utilized in Price County, Wisconsin; where it provided video forensic evidence and led divers to a drowned victim. The next year the ROV located and recovered the body of a 66-year-old man from 28 feet of water in the north arm of Burntside Lake, north of Ely, Minnesota. This marked the first time the unit was employed to bring a body to the surface. Then in 2007, Security Administrators Ltd. used the submersible to locate a total of 18 drug canisters which held 2,000 pounds of marijuana. These examples only show a brief cross-section of the many news-worthy occurrences where a VideoRay unit has assisted law enforcement over the years.
The football-sized VideoRay ROV submersible allows investigators to examine waters without requiring a diver's feet to get wet. "Basically, it's an extremely portable and reliable remotely operated robot camera that can take a look underwater quickly and easily," explains VideoRay sales and marketing coordinator Brian Luzzi.
The Phoenixville, Pennsylvania-based VideoRay LLC was inspired to create a submersible small enough to explore delicate wreckage in deep waters such as the historically infamous Titanic or the Japanese submarine, I-52, sunk during World War II. VideoRay's micro-ROV was developed and soon applied to explore and capture underwater worlds on video, whether for education, aquaculture research, investigations, security or surveys of dams, pipelines, wrecks or water tanks.A pre-survey tool
Investigators have found a multitude of benefits from using the aquatic robot, which ultimately produce a more effective, safe dive.
The ROV assisted Det. Jack Trevisan from the Kennett Square (Pennsylvania) Police Department and Det. Kenneth Beam of the Chester County (Pennsylvania) Detectives, in search of a murder weapon thrown into the Coatesville Reservoir in 2006. The VideoRay company, now manufacturing nine models of its submersible, arrived on-scene to help.
As evidenced by the Price County and Burntside Lake body discoveries, the VideoRay ROV unit has been used by law enforcement to find and recover evidence.
"In previous search and recovery missions, it has been an effective tool in locating evidence and bringing closure to cases." VideoRay's Luzzi explains. As an indirect benefit, law enforcement can use the submersible as an initial tool to gauge a scene for risks and hazards and to characterize the environment. "Basically it's like a pre-survey tool," he adds.
Though Undersheriff Dave Phillips of the St. Louis County (Minnesota) Sheriff's Office and Capt. Tom Crossmon of the St. Louis County Sheriff Rescue purchased a VideoRay ROV to use as a scene surveyor, they still planned for their teams to venture into waters after previewing the scene. "We initially purchased it to use as a search tool and have our divers do the recovery," says Crossmon.
The previewing benefit the unit provides is helping to keep divers safe. A common problem in underwater crime scene investigation is the risk divers take in unfamiliar submarine environments.
"On any kind of dive operation, a lot of times the divers are going out blind in what can be hazardous waters," Trevisan states in a Pennsylvanian news article. "With this equipment, they'll know what they're facing ahead of time."
Prior to purchasing an ROV, Phillips explains St. Louis County sheriff's deputies were using drag bars with hooks for water searches or to retrieve drowning victims, leaving investigators "in the blind." Another technique they practiced was to use divers in rare high-risk search-type scenarios.
"So, what we decided to do is find a tool where we can minimize risk to divers by searching with sonar and with robotics, and then confirming what we were seeing on sonar imagery with underwater robotics," Phillips says. "Then we send a diver down to do a recovery."Like playing Nintendo
But before divers can survey the underwater situation with the submersible, they've got to learn how to manipulate the remote-operated robot, which can be tricky. Operators guide the device with a joystick control console, which is secured in a watertight Pelican case. In the VideoRay Pro 3 XEGTO model, a 250-foot tether attaches the console to the ROV. Tether length varies from model to model and is stored in a second Pelican case.
Two joysticks govern horizontal movement, depth, camera tilt, lights and an optional manipulator arm. Additional controls can adjust vertical depth, lighting control and camera focus and toggle.
Operators view the scene through a 15-inch integrated video display on the console. Investigators can superimpose date, time, depth and heading information on the video display, as well as capture still images through the system.
It may take a few moments for law enforcement or explorers to acclimate to the remote operation of the device, which Luzzi compares to controlling a video game. "The learning curve is very slight; you can tell [which] operators ... play video games because they pick it up right away," he says.
In fact, Phillips has seen public safety professionals of all ages operate the unit. "If you can operate a Nintendo, you can operate one of these — you don't have to be a 19-year-old."
Surveying the scene through the ROV eye gives law enforcement a practical approach to identifying potentially troublesome environments. "I always like to have a hands-on role with our crime scene equipment and with evidence collection," Beam says. "The VideoRay permitted me to really feel a part of the search and the recovery, even though I couldn't go into the water. The video was extremely clear and sharp; it was like being in the water."
Though its joysticks resemble video game controls, the submersible doesn't handle as easily as a child's radio-controlled car on a concrete driveway. To accelerate the learning process, VideoRay offers training as part of the purchase package, which can range anywhere between two to five days, depending on the system.
The St. Louis County Sheriff Rescue unit runs a three-day basic training class, with one day spent in the classroom and two days on a practical scenario. "It might be wise to start out in a swimming pool to give people a basic idea of how the unit operates," he explains. "Because, literally, it takes minutes to learn, but it takes years to master."
Kennett Square PD and VideoRay searched a large area of the Coatesville Reservoir using the XEGTO model's forward-facing color camera and rear-facing black-and-white camera. Two 20-watt halogen lights illuminated the forward view while a high-intensity LED provided light to the rear. "It actually lit up the bottom so that you could see almost like daylight; it was a very neat experience," Trevisan, says.Accessorizing the ROV
A major feature of the Pro 3 XEGTO is the integration of larger thrusters than VideoRay's lower-end models, which enable the unit to carry more equipment.
This system can accommodate many applications by adding features or accessories, depending on a mission's purpose. Options include a high-resolution sonar imaging system, a manipulator arm, graphing software able to plot searched areas, and other instruments and sensors through the system's accessory connector.
Including sensors and accessories enhances an underwater ROV search because they are able to provide data a human diver cannot. "[Investigators] would search an area more thoroughly than just sending a diver in and generally searching the area with hands or feet," mentions Beam.
A sonar sensor from BlueView Technologies, for example, can be outfitted to the base of the VideoRay. In murky waters or muddy lake beds, visibility is limited, and thus sonar can sense what the eye can't.
Again, experience, practice and training for any tool play an important role in investigations. "The more you use it the easier it becomes to identify recognizable objects," Luzzi says.
Interpreting a sonar image can complicate a search effort, but a bit more training is all that is needed to enhance a search with this technology. "The sonar has additional training, because depending on what sonar you're using, you're looking for different things — some sonar units give a much different image than others," Crossmon says.
The ROV's system sonar works through a PC, which can be connected to the control box with optional two-screen viewing. A mannequin is used to train body searchers to recognize the difference between stumps, rocks and other items underwater. Collecting sample sonar images of various items can show investigators what a stump would look like, versus a car.
Radiation sensing also can be applied. Luzzi explains that the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy use this tool to sweep ship hulls for contraband and detect dangerous radiation.
In the Kennett Square PD case, the murder weapon was not found immediately. However, further investigation revealed a new location to search in the same reservoir and the weapon was ultimately obtained. Trevisan looks back on his experience with VideoRay optimistically. "It was very helpful," he says. "I have no doubt that if the murder weapon was in the place where we were [initially] searching, we would have found it."
Crossmon adds that even when a discovery is not made as a result of a preliminary search, there is still value to what is learned. He says: "Sometimes, it's not so much what you recover but what you have eliminated."Legal challenges
Surfacing underwater evidence is no easy task. Due to the importance of evidence in charging and prosecuting crimes, investigators try their best not to damage items found and collected. And though the VideoRay unit's primary purpose is to search and locate what lies beneath, collection remains a secondary use. Departments interested in the VideoRay or similar ROVs should consider their jurisdiction's evidence collection standards.
While Trevisan doesn't anticipate any legal issues with the device, the VideoRay's manipulator arm may be brought into question.
"I don't foresee any problem, unless, of course, the item you're looking for is damaged by the grab arm on the submersible," Trevisan says. "That's probably why most protocols would state that once the submersible finds the item, a diver would then go in for retrieval."
Beam believes a primary legal issue could be the location of the dive. If the scene was on private property, there may be controversy over what is collected. But he notes the power of the video evidence. "Even if the diver would pick [evidence] up and hold it in his hand, the video is capturing that; you can't beat that type of evidence to show to a jury."Law enforcement and DHS approved
According to VideoRay's Luzzi, law enforcement agencies can purchase the VideoRay through the General Services Administration.
Crossmon's team has purchased two through grants and shared the valuable technology with neighboring agencies. "It is our belief that grant money should be used to purchase products that can be regionalized," he says. "We've gone all over Minnesota and the country helping agencies with this tool."
Phillips suggests that agencies look a couple of years down the road to build an ROV purchase into local tax levy as a request to the local county board or city council.
Many technologies, such as imaging sonar, are now approved by the Department of Homeland Security as acceptable grant items due to concerns over course litigations and the threats for harbors, Phillips says.
ROVs aren't meant to replace divers, but rather to minimize their exposure in the water to enhance the search.
Phillips stresses: "If we can enter an era in public safety where we're searching by hammering the bottom with sonar and robotics then our risk of injury or death in personnel goes down considerably."