The Origin of the Species: How Did ANPR Cameras Come to Be?

Rohan Mathew

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Primitive Optical Character Recognition (OCR) systems have been around since 1914. In that year, Emanuel Goldberg developed a machine that converted Individual characters into standard telegraph code. About the same time, Edmund Fournier d’Albe developed the Optophone, which scanned and converted text to aural tones corresponding to the characters. These developments were used mostly for reproducing digitized records of printed documents. The first recorded development of an OCR system that combined with a high-resolution camera to read a vehicle license plate – basically, a simple automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) camera – was in 1976 at the Police Scientific Development Branch in Britain. These early systems needed specialized computer software, conditions of lighting, target movement speed, etc. in order to produce a reliable image. Though a stolen car was identified in 1981 with the primitive technology available then, it was in the 1990s that systems using standard computer software and operating in less restrictive conditions came into regular use, mainly in law enforcement and toll collection. Since 1991, the company Adaptive Recognition has been a leading force in the development of increasingly flexible and capable ANPR technology. 

ANPR Cameras Monitor Traffic Flow and Improve Safety

As ANPR technology has become more flexible and capable, it has found new and more varied applications. In its early days, when it could read only a plate on a slow-moving car and in limited light conditions, its primary use was for toll collection. Remember when you had to slow down to 10, or 25 MPH (15 or 35 km/h) to pass through an automatic toll booth?

As ANPR cameras developed, they could read plates on cars moving up to 186 MPH (300 km/h) and in poor visibility conditions such as fog or darkness. Most higher-density motorways in the world now read vehicle plates at highway speeds.

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Along with the more flexible conditions for reading the plates, the technology has been linked to databases allowing identification of stolen cars or cars involved in other crimes. In some cases, technology is employed that can identify high-polluting vehicles or those carrying hazardous materials that may be prohibited in some areas. Additionally, traffic pace can be monitored and metered to reduce congestion.

Other Specialized Applications of ANPR Cameras

Aside from appearing in obvious situations like checking whether or not a vehicle’s owner has paid for using the highway, there are some other ways traffic monitoring technology has been applied to provide certain information to improve users’ experiences of various kinds.

Access to High-Security Locations

The EU and UK governments have implemented systems combining specialized under-vehicle scanning capability with ANPR vehicle identification to speed up access control to high-risk government buildings and carparks. 

Under-vehicle Electronic Scanning – Credit: Adaptive Recognition

And, to boot, this system provides much higher security than shoving a mirror under the car and visually scanning for bombs or other devices.

Pay-by-Plate System for Ferry Operator

Denmark’s Laeso Ferry Company operates a ferry shuttle between the Danish mainland and Laeso Island. Their old system of manually checking in each car and verifying fare payment was causing unmanageable delays in ferry turnaround time. After they implemented a pay-by-plate system based on ANPR cameras scanning cars as they entered the terminal area, they were able to streamline the loading process and eliminate system delays. This also resulted in more efficient use of staff time, who were now freed from their manual check-in duties.


Hungary’s Nationwide Traffic Enforcement System (VÉDA)

Beginning in 2012, Hungary, in cooperation with the EU’s directive to reduce fatal traffic accidents, began implementing a nationwide traffic enforcement system called VÉDA. The goal was to reduce fatal traffic accidents by 50% by 2020 and to near zero by 2050.

A grid of ANPR cameras, some fixed and some mobile, was deployed to detect:

  • Excessive speed.
  • Hazardous materials (special license plates are issued).
  • Traffic light violations.
  • Bus and emergency lane violations.
  • Entry into prohibited areas.
  • Wrong direction violations.
  • Solid line and railway crossing violations

The results were gratifying. In the first quarter of implementation of the program, deaths in highway accidents were reduced by 20%, serious injuries by 10%, and the number of fatal accidents by almost 12%.

What’s the Future View of ANPR?

As you can see from the history and success stories we’ve covered here, ANPR technology has come a long way in the past 50 years or so. By expanding its utility through link-ups with specialized databases and one-off software programs, ANPR cameras can be put to many uses. The possibilities seem endless. In fact, Business Wire, a U.S.-based press release service, looked at many aspects of the future of the global ANPR industry through 2028.

Adaptive Recognition’s Approach to the Future

In its own right, Adaptive Recognition’s development teams have recently connected with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to offer cloud-based ANPR services. The result, called ANPR Cloud, is a pay-per-use, software-as-a-service (SaaS) system. It’s designed to support those in the traffic industry who don’t want to own hardware but need license plate recognition and/or vehicle identification capabilities, such as make, model and color recognition.

The development teams’ quest for a secure and reliable platform, where their ANPR capabilities could perform at a peak level, led them to AWS. The users can make the most of their traffic management systems in a strict data privacy environment.

The history of the technological development leading to ANPR cameras spans more than a century, from very primitive telegraph interpreters to today’s lightning-fast monitors of all things traffic, as well as many other applications of similar OCR-based technology. 

Where will it go from here? As with most technology, we can only guess, but the developments that will come to pass are not yet even a glimmer in the innovators’ eyes.

To see more of what ANPR technology can do for you and your vehicle identification needs, read about these developments and more here.