Back to top

Police Helicopters – They Can See In Your House! Or Can They?


I imagine most of you have heard or seen a police helicopter orbiting your neighborhood or have seen the video footage on the news or YouTube that comes from a police helicopter, but to many people, the privacy in their home can come into question when the eye in the sky is above them.

Police Helicopters can see into your home only when looking through a window with the HD color camera. The infrared camera is unable to look through walls, roofs, or structures because it only detects heat given off by an object. It can see if a house, room, or roof is hotter than its surroundings.

The privacy of your home is well respected by law enforcement when operating in a helicopter but if there is reason to suspect criminal activities are being conducted from a home they may be given permission to use the camera to try and see inside.

Lets have a look at what they usually look at.

How Can Police Helicopters See?

Several years ago I got the opportunity to spend a night shift as a passenger in a police helicopter and it was a great experience. During that flight, I got talking with the civilian pilot and the enlisted police officer about what they can and cannot see, and the legalities of where they point their camera. It was a great eye-opener!

Some of the most common camera systems mounted onto many law enforcement helicopters are manufactured by FLIR. One of the worlds leading experts in camera technology.

The aircraft-mounted cameras are mounted on a gyro-stabilized platform that can be controlled by the police observer. The stabilized platform eliminates any vibration caused by the helicopter. Within the camera unit is a HD (High Definition) color camera used for daytime video capture and an Infrared thermal imaging camera.

The zoom power of these cameras is staggering and with units capable of 120x an observer at 1000ft above the city can easily read the license plate of a car on the highway – Both day and night!

What Can Police Helicopters See During The Day?

HD Color Camera

During the day the police will mainly use the HD color camera as it gives an incredibly clear image of the subject. Just like any camera that you own, it is also unable to see through walls, floors, roofs, and structures.

This camera, however, is able to see through windows if the pilot maneuvers the aircraft to be able to get a line-of-sight view into a room. As I briefly mentioned earlier, this operation of looking into people’s windows is highly unethical and is not allowed under most circumstances.

Most police helicopters are able to establish a live downlink of the video feed to police headquarters and to the individual police cruisers from the camera. This gives good peace of mind to most civilians knowing that a rogue camera operator would soon be observed and punished.

The main reasons that a police helicopter would be granted permission to look through a window is when authorized by the police force when conducting reconnaissance, investigations, or providing aerial oversight.

Many SWAT teams like to have a camera looking into a building if possible before entering to establish if any threats are waiting on the other side of the door. This is when a police helicopter comes into its own.

Day Footage From a Police Helicopter

Infrared Camera

The infrared camera is used to detect thermal heat given off by an object. Cold objects appear dark and as an object gets hotter the color seen on the camera goes from gray to white.

During the day the infrared camera can be used really well for looking for hot bodies in wooded areas. This makes it a great tool for search and rescue, however, if the subject is under a dense tree canopy the camera is unable to see the heat signature as the leaves are blocking the view.

Smoke and fog do not pose a problem to the infrared camera and it can be used to help search for people especially in areas of wildfire smoke or missing hikers in the early morning fog.

What Can Police Helicopters See During The Night?

HD Color Camera

Depending on the amount of celestial and city light there is under the aircraft will dictate how much the HD color camera can see. In a well lit city, the camera can be used to quickly search areas to look for anything that may look like the police officer is looking for. They can then switch to the infrared camera for greater detail.

But, in areas of very little ambient light, the color camera is not the right tool for the job. The night time domain is where the infrared camera stretches its legs!

Just like during the day, if the requirement is to look through a window and the blinds and curtains are open it is quite easy to see what is happening inside of a well-lit room!

Infrared Camera

During the night the heat radiated off objects is more easily detected by the camera because the sun has stopped heating the ground and structures and only things that create their own heat start to stand out vividly.

Infrared Image Of A Boat Interception

Walls, roofs, and structures still cannot be seen through, even at night because the walls block the heat being radiated by something or someone on the other side. What they can do is show areas of where heat is different to that of its surroundings.

For example, attic space used to grow illegal substances under hot, powerful grow lamps are easily spotted by the police helicopter as the lamps heat up the entire roof of the building. In comparison to its neighbors, it is easily spotted and radioed back to headquarters for further investigation by land crews.

So now what about windows? Glass prevents infrared waves from passing through to the camera, so the camera is unable see through windows!

Because of this, the ‘Glass’ that covers the camera lens on the helicopter is actually made of Germanium to allow the camera to see. So no infrared camera will be able to see through a window even if the room is brightly lit and the blinds are fully open!

To Finish

Cameras mounted on a police helicopter are able to look through windows using the HD color camera, but the glass prevents the infrared camera from seeing in.

Walls, roofs, structures, and vehicles do not allow any type of visual inspection through them as the current technology required to do that is not available, however over time it may become available but then the legality of its use will be under heavy scrutiny to help protect the privacy and freedoms of the law-abiding citizens.

Further Reading

If you found this article interesting and would like to keep reading, I highly recommend the following articles from my blog:

Rick James

I am an aviation nut! I'm an ATP-rated helicopter pilot & former flight instructor with over 3500 hours spanning 3 countries and many different flying jobs. I love aviation and everything about it. I use these articles to pass on cool facts and information to you whether you are a pilot or just love aviation too! If you want to know more about me, just click on my picture!

Recent Posts