As published in PI Magazine January/February 2020
TRAIL CAM 101 FOR PI’S
The Use of Trail Camera’s by the Professional Investigator.
By Jim Nanos B.S., L.P.I.
Over the past year having attended over 38 association conferences and training sessions, I have had the opportunity to speak on the topic of covert surveillance often.
As many of you know, surveillance is my thing! Whether it’s deploying a camera on a utility pole (with permission of course) or sitting in one of my mobile surveillance platforms (car/van) for hours to get that video, I love it!
When I’m asked to do my full day advanced surveillance class at a pre-conference, I work in a full hour or so on the selection, use and deployment of trail cameras for surveillance. I’m going to write a little on the topic here and provide you the much-abbreviated version of my talk. A much more detailed offering will be covered in my advanced surveillance book released later this year.
First, as I do in my class, let’s lay out some ground rules. When deploying any covert surveillance equipment, make sure you are doing so in a completely legal manner. Most often, the issue becomes deploying on private property and privacy concerns. For the purpose of this article, I’m assuming you are authorized to deploy the equipment and are following all federal, state and local laws and regulations.
Many surveillance technicians have realized the ability to utilize the existing technology of trail cameras, both cellular and non-cellular based platforms, is a great tool to have in our surveillance gadget toolbox. For the benefit of those who are just getting into the use of these platforms, I’ll lay out some of the basics. The brand of trail cams I am referring to and the line I recommend is Covert Scouting Cameras and are available at PIGEAR.COM.
I can’t even begin to calculate the number of hours I’ve spent researching, testing, building and matching components of various wifi hotspots, routers, switches, power supplies, cameras in an attempt to get a solution for remotely viewable surveillance – on and on and on! Commercially available camera options, such as IP based surveillance systems ARE available. The issue quickly becomes cost. With commercial “pole camera “ systems hitting the $10k or more mark, how many of us can afford this option and would be willing to deploy that sort of investment where it could disappear as a result of theft. Enter the cellular trail camera!
BASIC TYPES OF TRAIL CAMERAS
We break trail cameras down into two categories: cellular based units and non-cellular, tradition trail cameras. Some folks still call these game cameras. Call them what you want, they are basically self-contained cameras that can be remotely deployed. The original intent and design of these cameras was for monitoring wildlife by hunters and nature enthusiasts. We (professional investigators) have been using theses platforms to monitor targets, houses, vehicles etc for years and with the advent of cellular trail cameras, we have stepped into the next generation!
There are many similarities between the traditional trail camera and the cellular trail camera, and I’ll discuss those a little further along in this piece.
One of the main benefits of utilizing trail cameras for our surveillance operations is the reliability and construction of the actual camera itself. By the nature of the intended use (remotely placed, outdoors in all-weather conditions to view wildlife) trail cameras are weatherproof and of durable construction with a self-contained power source. They are intended to be placed in the woods in harsh conditions and survive. Some cameras also offer an auxiliary battery port to add a larger battery or batteries for extended deployments. Someone has build a “better mousetrap” when it comes to remote surveillance!
THE TRADITIONAL TRAIL CAMERA (NON-CELLULAR)
These cameras tend to be of smaller construction or framed and as such, a little easier to hide, camouflage or otherwise deploy. The camera captures images on a standard secure data (SD) card, usually up to 32 GB. Most have the option of image quality settings, so the better the image quality – the fewer images can be stored on the card. I have small trail cams that will take a 20-megapixel image meaning from a couple hundred feet one can still read a license plate under the proper conditions.
Almost all trail cams offer some sort of infra-red (IR) illumination, although almost always this is useless as most targets are beyond the “flash power” of the IR. You can still obtain and capture very useful low-light images with the use of available ambient lighting. In a situation where there are streetlights, we get good images at night. On a rural country road with no lighting, no so much.
The biggest “problem” with a traditional trail camera is you don’t know what you’ve captured until you recover the camera or SD card, and view it on your pc. These are not “live view” cameras.
On a typical deployment of a non-cellular trail camera powered by eight AA batteries and a 32 GB SD card, I can obtain about seven days of around the clock photos at one minute intervals.
I recommend the Covert Scouting Black Viper or the MP16A. Both area great quality trail cameras with 20-megapixel and 16-megapixel resolution respectively. Both can be purchased for between $100.00 and $150.00. We have a few other options of proven, reliable trail cameras on PIGEAR.COM.
CELLULAR BASED TRAIL CAMERAS
These are exactly what the name implies, and I’ll go into a little detail for those who maybe unfamiliar with these platforms.
Think about a cellular based trail camera along the lines of your personal cell phone- only automated. The cellular trail camera operates very similarly to the traditional, non-cellular camera detailed above, with the exception of what it does with the captured image. The cellular trail camera will “send” or allow you to view the captured image remotely through your phone, PC or tablet in near real-time!
The camera captures the image, stores it locally on a SD card in the device, then transmits the image to a server usually hosted by the trail cameras manufacturer, which then becomes viewable to you the cameras owner via a secure website or portal.
There are some immediate benefits to the use of a cellular based trail camera over a traditional trail camera or other, internet protocol (IP) or wifi based device and I’ll touch on just a few.
The camera can be deployed anywhere there is an active cell signal – basically, if you can make a cell call from an area, the camera will function! You don’t need access to any wifi network, mobile hotspot or anything along those lines – just a decent cellular signal.
Being one who has tried just about every possibility for remote viewing of a target, another great benefit is the lack of added upkeep to a network, server, app or other equipment- the providing company does all that! There is no need to be sure the wifi hotspot communicates with the wireless router and that both of these get along with the camera you’ve chosen and then – how do make sure they all work off the same voltage and then all fit in the same enclosure!
I can launch the app from my cell phone or navigate to the company’s secure website and view any or all of the captured photos. I can then download them directly to my hard drive if need be. You also have the ability to take “on demand” photos with the press of a button. The particular camera I deploy allows me to set up various parameters for image capturing and change those settings remotely!
I can take a photo every three minutes from 6:00 am to 4:00 pm on Monday. Tuesday and Friday’s only. Oh, and don’t take any pics overnight, except for from 4:00 am to 4:05 am. The possibilities for customized surveillance is almost unlimited!
I recommend the Covert Scouting Blackhawk 4G LTE cellular camera. This particular model operates on the Verizon cellular network and there is another great version that operates on the AT&T network. We have a few other options of proven, reliable cellular trail cameras on PIGEAR.COM also.
Of course, there are some drawbacks. Most cellular cameras will not capture and transmit an image quicker then every three minutes. Most will do short video clips, but the activation or triggering of the camera is kind of hit and miss at more than 50 feet. I opt for time activated photos meaning the camera takes a photo at pre-determined intervals, say every three minutes. These intervals can be adjusted depending on the case requirements all the way up to one photo every twelve hours, but generally not quicker than every three minutes.
Of course, there is a small monthly cost also associated with this type of platform. The system I use and highly recommend charges about $225.00 for 225,000 images – about a penny a photo. This sounds like and actually is a really good price. I have PI’s say “Wow! -you’re getting 225,000 photos!” That’s sound like a ton of pics and it is, until you do some basic math.
Let’s say the case I’m working requires the quickest photo possible (every three minutes) for a period of 90 days. While high school was the hardest five years of my life (haha) even I can figure out that’s about 43,000 + photos! Someone has to view all of these for relevant information!
Cellular based cameras tend to be much larger than the traditional trail camera mainly due to the increased technology stuffed into the camera and the need for more battery space. Most also have the ability to add an auxiliary battery or batteries which is a big plus when deploying for extended periods.
Planning, set-up and execution on any surveillance involving equipment is critical. I literally can open up the box one of these units arrives in, slap in a few batteries and a SD card, insert the supplied SIM card and activate it on the company’s website and within 15 minutes of first opening the box, I’m capturing AND viewing images on my phone or laptop!
I extensively use cellular trail cameras on almost every one of my fixed surveillances at some point. I can set up a cellular trail cam for a week at a minimal cost to learn and document a targets pattern such as when they leave or return from work to more precisely target and deploy traditional in-person surveillance details. For a fraction of the cost of positioning a surveillance agent in a car at a location, I can obtain around the clock intel on multiple cases at the same time. It’s not uncommon for me to have a dozen cameras deployed for my firm or for other investigators on cases their working and need camera support.
The real benefit to the use of a cellular trail camera, is an “out of the box” solution to remotely viewable surveillance on a budget we can almost all live within. When I was a law enforcement officer working with an unlimited budget this was not a concern. Budget is a now big concern now that I am writing the checks! Go to PIGEAR.COM and check out the trails cams there or give me a call and I’ll pass along my thoughts. I’m also available for presentations at your associations conferences with live demo’s.