END OF THE SURVEILLANCE VAN: Maybe…and there are some excellent alternatives

covert surveillance vanFor many agencies, the notion of using a surveillance van has long since passed, and for most…that notion may have never occurred. Why? At the very top of the list is the expensive price tag just to buy a surveillance van, never mind the expense of maintaining and manning a van. Outside of the dollar figure, vans are typically complicated to use, prompting repeated training. Speaking of complication, keeping a surveillance van from getting-made these days is a trick in-and-of-itself. And lastly, who in their right mind would ever want to spend hours confined in a steel box.

Now before you think that I have sullied the repute of surveillance vans too much, there are still a couple of excellent uses for them. A big one is anytime there is a surveillance op to were live coverage is required, and coupled with the likely need of immediate officer intervention.

Another excellent use of surveillance vans is converting them to unmanned rigs. These days, the job of monitoring activities from an old television can be accomplished by remote… from anywhere in the world. In most cases, this can be done with the simple addition of a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) and 4G Modem. Even the latest in DVR’s are usually compatible with the oldest of analog style surveillance cameras. For those integrated cameras with pan/tilt/zoom…they too can be controlled via a DVR so long as they have a RS485 or RS232 input.

Depending upon the DVR installed into the van, you will be able to have multiple personal monitor live via smartphone apps. Now if that wasn’t cool enough, most DVRs come with some level of built-in analytics….so when something happens, it will notify you of an event. Also depending upon the DVR used, you may be able to have audio/video evidence stored not only on the DVR itself, but also at remote servers using a VMS (video management software).


If you’ve canned the van, or have never got started…there are some excellent alternatives such as drop cars. As the name implies, drop cars are vehicles that are, well…dropped off, or left near-and-dear to the target. To keep things simple, when considering a drop car as an alternative, the best way to think about them is a giant covert concealment. So these cars can be almost any make and model so long as they will blend in to the respective area.

One of my earliest experiences with drop cars was with a state welfare fraud unit. They needed something they could deploy in a grocery parking lot to get positive ID of individuals entering the establishment to later correspond with welfare transactions. The solve was simple. We used ordinary, soccer-mom SUVs with dark tinted rear windows to conceal the gear. The gear was a single PTZ camera mounted on a weighted tripod. In concert with the technology available, the video and PTZ control was transmitted via a wireless link. A block or two down the road, we could easily zoom in, gather IDs and track targets across the parking lot.

With today’s gear, making that same drop car for a welfare fraud unit is even more simple, more affordable and more effective. The PTZ cameras available now usually have 6x the resolution and low light capability, and everything can be controlled via the internet. And in some cases, the gear available will allow set-and-forget to where other missions can be run in parallel and the system will notify when activity has occurred.

In other cases, you may not be able to deploy a full size PTZ camera in a drop car. Case in point is a sedan that may be left just a few houses away from a target. In those instances, the car can be equipped with multiple high resolution pinhole or bullet cameras to get the view that is needed. Concealing those cameras can be accomplished through exterior grille placements and as simple as throwing them on the dash with a newspaper for concealment.

A major concern with drop cars is the potential of auto-theft. If that is a real concern, many of today’s DVRs can be purchased with GPS tracking and alarm-out built-in. So should the car get lifted, you’ll know right away that you had an awesome concealment….and you’ll be able to treat it like a bait car.
covert street light camera
With the advancements in surveillance gear over the past decade, pole cameras in general are very easy and quick to install. In addition, many of them are so covert that they can be installed directly over the targets. The prime example of the latest gear is the MAXSUR SV1 covert street light camera. Once in the bucket lift, the average lineman can have it installed in a matter of minutes. Concerning stealth, the PTZ port is so small that from the ground it appears as a small black sticker. Net result, full facial ID and LP’s can be picked up over a hundred feet away, and everything is easily controlled via a smartphone.

For additional optical power, other pole camera systems such as the SV2 and GBOX ULTRA are excellent alternatives. The concealment design of these systems afford a larger, more traditional style PTZ camera and LP readings from several hundreds of feet.
mini pole camera
Mini pole cameras are a fairly new method of surveillance and because most are battery powered, they are very easy to deploy. This makes them a perfect choice for those missions that will last just a few days to a week. A prime example of a mini-pole camera is the GBOX MINI which has a HD pinhole camera, secure built-in WiFi and onboard recording. Because of its stealth and small size (six to eight inches), it can be installed in just a couple of minutes and very near to targets. Even from just a few feet away, targets will see nothing of interest.

With the onboard WiFi of these mini systems, live monitoring and footage review can be done via smartphones over one-hundred feet away. Depending upon the system, many have a peer-to-peer function for worldwide monitoring when used with a wifi hotspot.

Even though systems such as the GBOX MINI are called mini pole cameras, that doesn’t mean they have to go on poles. They’ll blend in handsomely on almost any building and even powered signs.
The oft used adage of “thinking outside the box” definitely applies here. Whether it’s a neighborhood steeped with blight, an industrial park or streets reminiscent of Mayberry…there is something than can be introduced as a covert concealment. I’ve put surveillance systems in wide variety of innocent looking items such as Budweiser 12 pack box, Coke can, yard sign, traffic cone and traffic barrel. Anything and everything that can be introduced to a respective area is a potential concealment and replacement for a surveillance van.

Thanks for reading. Hopefully this article has triggered some ideas on how you or your agency can be even more effective with surveillance. I’d love to hear your comments and/or suggestions for future topics. Click Here to send me an email. 

Best regards,

Jake Lahmann

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