License Plate Readers and Crime Prevention

Episode A02 

Host: Dr. Stephen D. Bryen

Sponsor: SDB Partners LLC ( “Powerful Access to Hard Markets”

Preventing Crime with Automated License Plate Readers


The world is full of automobile license plates, or as they are called in most countries outside the United States, automobile number plates.  There are as many colors and plate layouts as you can imagine.  In the United States every state has its own set of license plates, and you can add to that U.S. territories and possessions, the District of Columbia and special tags for government vehicles, diplomats, construction equipment, motorcycles and military equipment.  To make it even more challenging,  states often issue vanity tags and tags commemorating important events and famous people and things.  Even layout and colors can vary from state to state and inside states.  It is a little better in Europe and Japan, for example, but there are still many variations including language.

Think then of the challenge to find a license plate in a stack of plates.  Needle in the haystack come to mind?

Certain conditions and technologies are needed to make license plate or number tag recognition by machine vision viable.

First, the reader itself has to be clear minded, which is to say it has to understand what it sees, and put what it sees in the right order.  Probably many folks in the United States have noticed that some plates and letters and numbers on top of one another, and then larger numbers next to the stacked numbers.  Some plates have insignia or symbols stuck in between the letters and numbers on the tag; many license plates have written on the top or bottom or both slogans such as the DC tag that says No Taxation Without Representation.

Assuming the reader is capable of potentially sorting out what it sees, it has to contend with the environment.  It may be raining or snowing, or ice may have formed on the plate, or it has been splashed with mud and dirt.  Or someone has taken some paint and turn a capital C into the letter O or it in the numeral  O (zero).

The algorithms that do the work need to be capable of sorting the mess and doing it in a fraction of a second.  An advanced automated license plate reader can read tags at the blink of an eye, it can see across lanes of traffic, and it can pick up speeding cars going toward the reader or away from the reader, or parked by the side of the road, either parallel parked or parked on a diagonal.  And to be useful its accuracy should be better than 99 percent.

Seven years ago Elsag SpA, which is a Finmeccanica company based in Italy, decided to bring its advanced license plate reading (LPR) technology to the United States.  Elsag based its trechnology on what it learned from its post office machine business –it built devices that could read thousands of envelopes and postal cards, even handwritten cards, automatically.  Elsag sold its first LPR systems to Italy’s Carabinieri, Italy’s national police.  Thousands of units were put to service, especially against Mafia operations and terrorists.

The U.S. was behind Italy in using LPR technology.  Many of the home grown products did not perform very well, and often funds were unavailable to pay for the systems.  Add to that the fact it takes time for law enforcement to embrace a new technology, even one that is a force multiplier like LPR.

LPR can see faster and further than any human, and it can check against tens of thousands of plate records sounding an alert each time a problem plate is recognized.  The Elsag LPR includes a second camera to photograph the vehicle itself, one to see the license plate, and a GPS to record the location and time of the intercept.


Elsag today is the U.S. market leader with over 75% of the market.  The Elsag LPRs are in all 50 states and are deployed along the southern border of the United States by Customs and Border Protection.  The systems are used by national, state and local law enforcement and counter-terrorism agencies.  Mark Windover was the first CEO of Elsag and he remains at the company helm.  Today, whether it is the “ring of steel” around lower Manhattan, protecting the financial district, or around Washington DC and the Capitol, the Elsag LPR is support critical law enforcement activities.

School Bus with LPR to Protect Kidspodcasta02

For full disclosure, Dr. Stephen Bryen, President of SDB Partners, is Chairman of the Board of Elsag North America.  Elsag North America is headquartered in Brewster, New York and its manufacturing plant is in Madison, North Carolina.

Visit SDB Partners at

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