Video Surveillance Turning Smarter with IP-Based Video Cameras

Being a fairly new technology, many police departments and municipalities are not aware of the fact that video surveillance can performed reliable and more efficiently with wireless technology. Moreover, the technology's critical success factors are not widely known.

by / October 9, 2007
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For several years the residents of Rockford Housing Authority (RHA) in Illinois faced a peculiar security challenge. They often witnessed strangers loitering in the vicinity indulging in drug sales, public drinking and other offensive behaviors, but despite various security measures, those activities could hardly be contained. That was because, they discovered, the vast majority of those who engaged in such activities were not residents at all. So, while many were spotted, not all could be nabbed because as many as two-thirds of the belonged outside the housing community.

Officials of RHA realized that besides all the measures already taken, another security layer in the form of a ubiquitous video surveillance was required. But how? With 15 properties that include 2100 housing units, RHA is the third-largest public housing authority in Illinois, and wiring the whole area was neither cheap, nor easy. "There were a few regular wired cameras (called the CCTV cameras) installed already but those were not flexible and couldn't provide very effective surveillance because RHA had a lot of trees," says Paul Hackerson, security director, Rockford Housing Authority.

The solution came from Montel Technologies, a provider of wired and wireless networking systems, that installed a new security monitoring system is based on IP-based video cameras and a wireless mesh network from Silicon Valley-based Firetide, Inc.

"Crimes plummeted by 20 percent soon after we installed the wireless cameras," says Paul Hackerson, and "now we monitor the property not only from the monitoring office but also from our homes if need be. And we use the cameras for a lot more than security surveillance. The cameras also tell me if the property in being maintained properly, if the grass is getting mowed, or if there are any hazards I need to deal with."

While the RHA is using wireless video cameras for checking crime rate and also to keep an eye out on the maintenance of the vast property, other uses are emerging elsewhere. The Phoenix Police Department that was the first police department in the country to use wireless video surveillance for time-critical investigative deployments and it is now moving on to its next step. The department, according to Chris Jensen, a detective with the city's Drug Enforcement Bureau, is trying to develop new uses of wireless video surveillance so that the cameras do more intelligent things like reading the number plates of cars, crime suppression through interpretation of movements, and as an officers' safety tool.

Indeed, following the 9/11 terror attacks, as homeland security initiatives gains growing importance in America, wireless video surveillance has emerged as the most preferred video surveillance tool for police departments and municipalities.

"Video surveillance over Internet Protocol is accelerating very fast with numerous law enforcement and public safety agencies across the U.S. adopting wireless video surveillance in order to make their jobs more efficient and cost effective," says Bo Larsson, CEO of Firetide Inc, the California-based developer of wireless mesh networks that claims to be the largest player in wireless video surveillance market in US.

According to Larsson there have been over 40 installations of IP-based video surveillance in the past 18 months systems in the US, "and soon, you will see some very big announcements too."

Firetide estimates that out of the global $1.5 billion IP-based video camera market in 2006-2007, the US alone will account for well over $650 million.

There are many reasons for this trend. But foremost among them is the fact that wireless digital video cameras are easy to install. "We were pleasantly surprised at the speed of implementation [of a wireless video surveillance system]," says Tom Lawrence, deputy police chief of the Dallas Police department.

Dallas has a population of 1.2 million and spans 385 square miles. Downtown is an especially busy area that sees hundreds of thousands of people visiting the area during the day. Thousands

dine at the district's restaurants or spend an evening at the many clubs and entertainment venues. The police department's budget constraints limit the number of officers who can be deployed at any one time and this has forced the department to resort to wireless mesh technology for effective monitoring.

The Dallas City Council and the local police department implemented a wireless video surveillance system consisting of 32 Firetide mesh nodes and 40 Sony cameras in the "troubled" central business district.

Lawrence says that with 24/7 wireless video monitoring, the system has proved to be an almost instant deterrent to crime while improving the police department's detection and investigation capabilities.

"While we did not go into the project with the concept of wireless, the benefits quickly became obvious. The mesh enabled quick setup of the network without a complete overhaul, while providing excellent bandwidth and security for video streams," says Lawrence.

The other important driver is cost. The cost-benefit ratio of IP-base wireless video surveillance is 10 to 1," says Larsson. Admittedly, traditional video monitoring and surveillance applications employ analog CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras that are hard-wired via coaxial cabling to a centralized monitoring and recording facility. This arrangement, dating back to the 1960's, still works well enough today within and around a closed environment such as a building, a few blocks, or even a campus. But the high cost of cabling becomes as a significant hurdle for very wide area.

By eliminating any dependence on wires, IP-based wireless cameras on the other hand can be placed -- easily and cost-effectively -- virtually anywhere with a mesh network infrastructure. "The compromises of the past [through analog CCTV systems] that neglected locations or spots impractical or impossible to wire before can now finally be remedied with IP-based video surveillance," says Larsson.

Still, public safety agencies face a few challenges when deploying wireless video surveillance. "Being a fairly new technology, many people are not even aware of the fact that reliable video surveillance can performed effectively and more efficiently with wireless technology," says Larsson, "And more importantly, the technology's critical success factors are not known widely."

Therefore Larsson advises, when deploying an IP-based video surveillance project, authorities should keep the following tips in mind. These Larson says have been formulated by Firetide through its experience with over half of the IP-based wireless video surveillance projects in US.

Tip 1: Draw From Multiple Sources of Funding

Investigate various sources of funding that may be available from departmental budgets, homeland security grants, or even private grants. Additionally, a public safety network can be securely augmented to provide more services such as public Internet access and voice over IP.

Tip 2: Address Privacy Concerns Head-on

For overt surveillance, adopt written surveillance guidelines and ensure personnel are properly trained. Inform affected constituencies -- residents, businesses, and media -- ahead of time; open communications and public demos are well received. For covert surveillance, reassure the public and the media that the surveillance is conducted strictly within the law.

Tip 3: Anticipate Staffing and Training Needs

Police personnel need training on the new monitoring technology, such as remote camera management or mastering the video management software. Learning curves may vary; allow for this in the training process. For large surveillance projects, a creative approach is to hire retired police personnel who may be interested in working part-time in the monitoring room.

Tip 4: Partner for Success

Seek out system integrators and suppliers who are comfortable with wireless and IP technologies and who will support you. Interagency cooperation is also essential for rapid deployment.

Tip 5: Consider the Total Infrastructure

Identify the backhaul options (how you will connect the wireless mesh to the monitoring station) early in the planning stages. Wired and wireless are both viable

options; backhaul can be dedicated or shared with other local government applications.

According to Larsson, with the paradigm shifts in security needs of the day, IP-based broadband wireless video surveillance appears to be the only solution for avoiding the snags that many public access deployments are facing today. "Authorities would be wise to consider this method of technology seriously," he says. After all, most traditional video surveillance has so far identified a crime after it has been committed. But now, the need of the day is "intelligent" monitoring that can detect and prevent a potentially undesirable event before it happens, instead of just identifying one afterwards.


Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.

Photo of surveillance room at a State of Michigan building by Jeffness. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License version 2.5