05.06.11

Navy SEAL Helmet Cams: Obama Watched bin Laden Raid Video

Obama and officials in the White House Situation Room were able to watch the raid against bin Laden live, the Washington Post confirms. Ian Yarett on how helmet-cam combat video works.

Obama and officials in the White House Situation Room were able to watch the raid against bin Laden live, the Washington Post confirms. Ian Yarett on how helmet-cam combat video works. Plus, full coverage of bin Laden.

It was a picture that caught everyone’s attention. Sitting in the White House situation room, President Obama and his team appear to be breathlessly monitoring the raid that located and killed Osama bin Laden. But the image left many wondering: was the president actually seeing the operation unfold in real-time on the screen in front of him?

A Closer Look: The Situation Room Decoded

In a White House briefing on Monday, counterterrorism chief John Brennan said that he and the rest of Obama’s team were “able to monitor the situation in real time” and were given “regular updates” as the operation proceeded, but wouldn’t say whether there was a live video feed. Even though the government won’t confirm that the SEALs were wearing cameras, a military spokesman tells The Daily Beast that video is a routine part of many combat missions.

Smartphones may soon take the place of helmet cameras, with soldiers placing their phones into a special pocket on the outside of a Kevlar vest, camera facing out.

“With today’s technology, it’s not uncommon for cameras to be carried into combat operations,” says Lt. Commander Fred Kuebler, a public affairs officer at the U.S. Special Operations Command. Kuebler confirmed that soldiers themselves wear cameras during certain missions to document them and provide material for later analysis, though he wasn’t able to say whether this technology was used as part of the Pakistan operation or whether these helmet cameras are able to live-stream footage in real time. YouTube in fact abounds with helmet cam footage (see here and here), and helmet cameras are widely available to consumers online and in stores.

When it comes to documenting military operations, commandos aren’t the only ones bringing cameras into battle. Each branch of the military also has one or more “combat camera” units made up of photographers and videographers. Their job: to deploy with combat troops or special operations forces as needed and record their missions. Combat camera squads receive soldier training and work on the frontlines when necessary, capturing still images and video footage that is used by the military for planning and assessment purposes, among others, or for release to the news media. Aaron Burden, a combat photojournalist at the Fleet Combat Camera Group Pacific—one of the Navy’s two combat camera units—says that they sometimes use Hero and Contour HD helmet cameras (both are available to ordinary consumers on Amazon.com).

Though the military won’t divulge the precise type of camera used by SEAL commandos, smartphones may eventually take their place. A company called IncaX has developed a software solution that effectively transforms the ubiquitous, off-the-shelf smartphone into a cheap body-worn camera that can stream video live—and the Office of Naval Research is testing it out for use with the SEALs, says Bill Switzer of CopTrax, a firm that markets IncaX technology. Soldiers simply have to mount a smartphone on their chest—in a special pocket on the outside of a Kevlar vest, for instance, with the camera facing out. During combat, commanders can see the location of their troops on a map as a mission proceeds and, with the click of a button, see what any individual soldier is seeing in real time ( here’s what the command dashboard looked like during a recent test). The video is also recorded locally and uploaded to a cloud server when bandwidth permits for later review. Thanks to the accelerometers that are nearly ubiquitous in smartphones, the system can even detect movement and g-force that soldiers experience, its makers say.

Outside of the military arena, body-worn cameras are becoming increasingly common among both law enforcement and recreational users. For cops, these cameras can contribute to officer safety and help reduce frivolous lawsuits in which police are falsely accused of misconduct, Switzer says (IncaX is selling a smartphone-based solution for this, too). And in the recreational realm, companies like Tachyon market helmet cameras for documenting “extreme activities” such as skiing, diving, or biking. Tachyon’s website is full of sample videos, taken by customers who strapped these cameras to their ski goggles while hitting the slopes or their guns (with the optional gun mount kit) while at the shooting range.

“Body-worn video is in early stages, but there’s a tremendous amount of interest,” Switzer says.

Ian Yarett reports on science, the environment, and health for Newsweek.