An interesting opportunity for embedded hardware suppliers caught the attention of the VDC M2M Embedded Platform team. The opportunity was highlighted in a Boston Globe article this week about a local police department that equipped a cruiser with a $28K Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) unit. There were a number of eye-popping statistics starting with the fact that the unit apparently paid for itself in the first 11 days it was deployed. The ROI was accomplished from revenues generated by identifying vehicles and drivers with expired licenses, registrations, inspections, or other unpaid fines and fees. ALPRs can also be used for parking enforcement particularly in areas where civilian officials want to encourage shoppers with low cost short interval parking spaces. In this parking application, an official uses an ALPR to detect commuters and/or store workers that try to take advantage of the potential arbitrage and fine them.
Now let’s look at the $28K bundle of embedded hardware and software and speculate a bit on what is likely to be involved. The ALPR cited by the Boston Globe had the capability to read 1,800 license plates per minute and cover 4 lanes of traffic simultaneously. It can make those readings at differential speeds of up to 150 mph. This is a key factor because the unit is mounted on a cruiser as opposed to a parking or toll-taking lane where only the vehicle would be moving and the zone where the license plate would be is more predictable. Therefore there has to be a camera system capable of capturing a wide field at varying focal lengths and light conditions. The torrent of data from the camera system has to be rapidly processed to identify license plates and simultaneously perform Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on 4 or more plates in the field of view. Additionally, the system has to identify the state that issued the plate. This is challenging because many states like Massachusetts issue multiple types of specialty plates for sports teams and other organizations or causes. States also control costs by not replacing license plates until they practically fall apart. Therefore, it is fairly safe to say that there would be approximately $10K in optics and high performance processing inside the ALPR to accomplish the OCR function.
What happens next is important. We are going to make an assumption and it is a big one. We will assume that the ALPR generates data that supports law enforcement but this data will not be a cornerstone for court cases. This means that the raw video would not need to be compressed and stored for future reference while preserving chain of custody. For example, if the ALPR were going to be used for moving traffic or criminal violations it would need to have irrefutable video evidence that identified the driver as well as speed measurement data. Because of our limited OCR assumption, the captured data only needs to be combined with time stamps, GPS coordinates and, perhaps a few operational parameters. As a result, this limited data set would be in the order of kbytes per record as opposed to Mbytes per second for full video archiving. Even so, this still represents several thousands of dollars per ALPR unit for the additional embedded sensing, processing, storage, HMI and communication hardware.
In our estimate, the next part of the ALPR application would optimally involve cloud-based Big Data resources. The ALPR would transmit captured data in real time and processed for matches in multiple databases. The response back to the police cruiser would have to be rapid to be effective. The most effective ALPR supporting infrastructure would have to combine data from all municipalities, states, and federal agencies relevant to a particular region. Suffice it to say, the cloud-based and communication services could easily amount to several hundred dollars per month for each ALPR deployed.The Boston Globe article stated that there were already 87 ALPRs deployed in the state with another 7 Boston area police departments adding 21 additional in the next month. Considering that Massachusetts alone has over 350 cities and towns but the entire US represents over 36,000 municipalities, the potential market for ALPRs and the embedded hardware inside them would appear to be a huge and rapidly growing opportunity.