Saturday, April 19, 2014

Evolution of police laser (lidar) and its active and passive countermeasures

Updated: 1846Z-5, 23 Apr 14, By Veil Guy

When the engineers of Veil set out to counter the new speed enforcement targeting threat, called police laser or police lidar, during the early 90s, active countermeasures (ie; laser jammers) were not available. In fact, radar detector companies had yet to devise a way to even detect it.

I remember reading a Car and Driver article detailing some enterprising approaches the editors employed to reduce the targeting distances of police laser.  The boys fitted a vehicle with an extra headlight (reminiscent of a Tucker) and proceeded to test that vehicle with all three high-beams on. What they found was that their approach actually sliced some detection range from the first police lasers produced, the LTI 20-20.

Police lidar was marketed at the time as being undetectable (and unbeatable) and for a brief time it was. Thankfully Cincinnati Microwave (makers of the venerable Escort/Passport detectors) did manage to produce a dedicated laser detector that mounted alongside their radar detector. Mike Valentine of Valentine Research also responded to the new threat with his Valentine One or V1 that was internally fitted with a front-facing laser detection circuit.  Eventually Escort combined the laser detection functions into their future radar detectors and Valentine began producing V1s that included both a front and rear laser sensors.  Cobra, Beltronics, and Whistler followed suit and to this day radar detectors include both front and rear laser detection sensors built-in.

Police Laser/Lidar Rear Targeting Speed and Distance

All police lidar works using the same principle. Unlike police radar, which measures the doppler frequency shift of their signals to directly measure speed, police laser operates by firing a series of near-infrared light pulses at a fixed rate and then measures the changing times it takes to see their reflections from the targeted vehicle to calculate and report a speed.  Also unlike radar, vehicles are targeted individually like a sniper using a rifle. What this means is when your radar/laser detector alerts, you are being targeted and rarely will another driver receive an advanced warning. Without any form of additional protection, detectors are essentially ticket notifiers.  By the time you can react, your speed has been already clocked.

It took Veil Corporation nearly 10 years to complete its development of its passive countermeasure Laser Veil.  In 2004 the first official test of Veil was conducted by Speed Measurement Laboratories (SML) before the product was released to the marketplace.  Fortunately Veil was determined to be effective at reducing the targeting range of laser, enough so to provide the driver an additional two to 15 seconds of reaction time.

By that time there had been one laser jammer company called Blinder--introduced to the U.S. market in 1999 and still actively selling at the time--also being tested at SML and it too was proven to be an effective active countermeasure to police laser .  SML tested the Blinder at both 1000 and 500 foot ranges to see if speed readings were obtainable.

Blinder had been not the very first jammer to hit the U.S. market, however. That distinction went to the Lidatek LE-10. But, unlike the "brute-force" jams provided by the Lidateks, which were very effective, Blinder used a more efficient system of look-up tables which enabled their jammers to precisely synchronize their light pulses to precisely interfere with the known pulse-rates of the lidar guns in circulation.  The guns that were tested at that time were produced by LTI, Kustom Signals, and Stalker and then eventually Laser Atlanta.  There were also guns that were available abroad, namely the Riegl and Jenoptik Laveg.

Another early player was the K40 LD5500 Plus (introduced in 1994), but that unit proved to be ineffective against the current Gen 2 police lasers of the day.  Somewhat more effective but not up to the performance level of the Blinder was the BEL LaserPro 905 and its twin, the Escort ZR3.

Ontrack's LaserShield Plate Diffuser

Ontrack produced a passive countermeasure--a license plate cover which reduced reflectivity of the license/number plates by diffusing the reflected IR light pulses.  We found them to be very effective in and of themselves, however their effectiveness overall was compromised by the primary targeting areas, the headlights that remained unprotected. As the saying goes, you are only as strong as your weakest link and as such the LaserShield didn't fair well when used alone.  As a consequence the perception was that the product was ineffective.

Laser Veil Headlight Protector & Stealth Coating

Enter Veil.  Unlike an active countermeasure, Laser Veil, works on an entirely different principle, one of absorption, not interference. From the outset, Veil has been marketed as a product that could be used alone or as a complement to active countermeasures as it will always improve the performance of any laser jammer. It does so by reducing the overall visibility (technically called laser cross-section) of any vehicle or motorcycle. This makes it much easier for any laser jammers to do their job since they have less reflections to overcome.

Veil and Blinder had marketed their products as solutions to buy the driver some precious extra seconds to react and safely slow down to avoid a ticket. Neither were marketed as jam-to-gun solutions this was to not attract undue attention to themselves. Unfortunately, that message was drowned out by other manufacturers who were attempting to establish a foot-hold in the North American marketplace, namely Antilaser, Laser Defender, Laser Interceptor, and Laser Pro Park. Escort also introduced the improved ZR4, as a replacement to its ZR3, but like Blinder played it low key, calling their jammer a shifter (something they do to this very day).

Blinder Denmark had acquired patents for its look-up table jamming algorithm both abroad and in the North America. Unfortunately these other manufacturers along with a countless number of cheaply-made Korean Blinder knock-offs, failed to respect Blinder's patents and unscrupulously marketed their products to the enthusiast community. While no authoritative reviewer of the time such as SML, RadarTest, nor I chose to review these patent-infringing products out of respect for Blinder's IP, independent enthusiast testers did so and in a manner revealing the true performance capabilities of the jammers.  (Note: Most of the patent-infringement issues have been since resolved resulting in some settlements including one between Laser Interceptor (and Escort indirectly as they source their latest shifter through LI) and Blinder for an undisclosed amount and other infringers have long exited the U.S. marketplace.)

The word was getting out to the public, to the enthusiasts, traffic enforcement officers (who had access to the Internet), and ultimately the lidar manufacturers themselves.  The traffic enforcement community also had their online forums and the word was spreading there as well. Officers discussed why they were having difficulty obtaining speeds of the same vehicles day in and day out.

Unfortunately, the marketing message of these manufacturers was if a product didn't provide jam-to-gun (JTG) performance (provide jamming protection all the way to point-blank range) it was "junk."  For many years those marketing campaigns worked well (destructive and mean-spirited as they were and are to this very day). That very public message infected the online enthusiast community forums and enthusiast testing groups. It wasn't uncommon at the time for jammer owners to "tweak" traffic enforcement with repeated jam-to-guns, something that wasn't necessary at all.  Videos proliferated on YouTube demonstrating this as well.

The problem was that the pronouncements by the online community became too vocal and cavalier eventually leading the traffic enforcement community and lidar manufacturers to take notice.  They set out to do something about it.

Foreseeing the problems that this would create for the countermeasure community, I had penned an article that if the lidar manufacturers wanted to get serious about defeating laser jammers all they would have to do is to move away from using fixed-pulse in favor of either modifed-fixed, variable, or randrom pulse-rates.  This had already happened abroad with a new lethal police lidar called the Traffipatrol XR.

Laser Atlanta Normal vs Stealth-Mode Pulse Train (Courtesy: GoL)

In the U.S. market, the first evidence of this happening appeared with Laser Atlanta.  They introduced a mode called "stealth mode" or ECCM (electronic counter-countermeasure mode). When ECCM was activated, it varied the pulse-train slightly. For a time, not only did it defeat the laser jammers, it also prevented radar detectors from detecting them (with the exception of the V1). Whistler invested the resources into figuring the mode out and they became the second company able to detect and alert to it.  Escort and Beltronics were late to the party but eventually they too managed to detect it.

Blinder eventually figured out how to both detect and jam stealth-mode as did the other active countermeasure players but it took time to do and for during that time, drivers who relied upon actives jammers as their sole defense were vulnerable to intant-punch throughs or IPTs (that is--obtainable speed readings regardless of the distance--as if the driver had no countermeasures what so ever).

Fortunately for Veil owners, Veil proved very effective at countering LA's stealth-mode (as well as the TraffiPatrol XR), evidence that no matter what was thrown at the driver, Veil would effectively reduce the capture range.  In practice "stealth-mode" wasn't the threat that some believed it could be because 1) Laser Atlanta was a relatively small player in the industry; 2) the ECCM mode had to be explicitly enabled by the officer through a series of deeply embedded menu options; and 3) the jammer market was substantially smaller than the radar detector market.

As time marched on an increasing number more traffic-enforcement departments became aware of laser jammers and their effectiveness.  A number of states began to specifically outlaw their use. Currently twelve states in the US.  The states currently outlawing their use are:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Minnesota
  • Nebraska
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • South Carolina
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Washington DC

Nine provinces of Canada also have laws on the books specifically outlawing the use of laser jammers as do other countries.  It's safe to assume more regions will follow suit. Penalties for getting caught with a jammer vary by region, so it's advisable to know the local laws. One user of jammers that I knew of personally, had his new car confiscated in Hong Kong, never to be returned.

To assist traffic enforcement in identifying drivers who use laser jammers, lidar manufacturers began including the ability to detect jamming attempts. While laser jammer companies have been worked to avoid triggering these jam alerts, they haven't been perfect at doing so.  

Things really took a turn for the worse when a new kid on the block (Digital Ally's Laser Ally) started appearing.  Interesting in making a splash, the manufacturer created an online account on the primary enthusiast forum of that time and an egregious public taunting ensued between them and the members of the laser jamming community. Essentially a gauntlet was thrown down by Laser Ally who claimed they would be producing police lidar guns specifically designed to be "unjammable."  

So it began, their marketing campaign to the traffic enforcement community.  The initial market penetration of the Laser Ally was quite small, in part, because it was hampered by poor marketing by their "manufacturer's rep" Digital Ally; the fact that the established players of LTI, Kustom, Stalker, and Laser Atlanta dominated the market place; and the process of being approved by the IACP as an accurate means of measuring speed.

DragonEye Compact.  Latest Generation Random Pulse Rate Police Lidar

Over time things had changed in their plus column.  Digital Ally went away and the underlying manufacturer known as DragonEye began marketing their products directly and more aggressively. Today, DragonEye has been making serious inroads into the traffic enforcement and the other more established manufacturers have taken notice and the number of states or local municipalities that are using them are growing. While the list of states remains sketchy states that are known to have them in use are Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Texas, and Delaware. In Canada, the DragonEyes have been spotted in the wild in the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario.  Neither of these lists is complete, to be sure. It appears the New Jersey may reviewing these guns for incorporation into their arsenal.  I suspect other states are as well.

The other lidar manufacturers haven't been standing still either. LTI and Stalker have also introduced police lasers that have been designed to specifically defeat laser jammers.  As these newer generations of police lasers are being introduced, they are getting much smaller in size, far easier to operate hand-held, and most importantly have significantly dropped in price to roughly a third of what they were priced at originally.  Some of them are also including greater capabilities than merely speed detection.  One LTI model has the ability to record speeding events and a Kustom Signals gun has an event memory feature that can be used in the chain-of-evidence.

Police laser's popularity is continuing to grow.  Lidar is now price competitive with radar; much more portable than radar; is much harder to challenge in court than radar; can be used at distances far exceeding radar; and can be used during periods of heavy multi-lane traffic.

AntiLaser Priority Parking Sensor

With the next article, we'll discuss the specifics of these new lidar technologies; why it is becoming increasingly difficult for active countermeasures to defeat them; and which ones are the most effective at doing so in this continuing cat-and-mouse game.

Blinder HP-905 Quad Head Parking Sensor

Stay tuned and drive responsibly...and remember, never attempt to jam-to-gun, it's very irresponsible and puts the entire enthusiast community at risk (although the damage has long since been done).

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