Video surveillance networks: Lights, camera, controversy

Advances in video surveillance technology lets Big Brother zoom in


Bandwidth bottleneck

     One bottleneck to moving high-quality video data is limited network bandwidth. High-definition video requires high-performance networks to move massive amounts of data, which typically do not exist for this purpose.

     Another Maryland researcher may have a solution. Electrical and computer engineering professor Chris Davis is working on advanced high-performance wireless links using both lasers and radio frequencies. Davis' network currently transmits television-quality video at more than 1 GB per second.

     "Very few wireless links have these data rates," Davis explains. "We're moving high-quality video across campus at about 30 frames per second. Now, because the images are of such high quality, we can start exploiting them using algorithms to look for events."

     Davis' system already can detect abandoned objects, read license plates at hundreds of meters, and identify types, sizes and colors of vehicles. Davis believes they're the only group that can grab high-definition video, move it around and process it in real-time.

     "Most people are analyzing tapes after the fact to see if they can recognize anything," he says. "We can literally identify a vehicle of interest, alert police and stop it before it leaves campus."

     Elaborate video networks are already emerging. In the United Kingdom, one network links 14,000 message signs, telephones and more than 6,000 surveillance cameras to traffic control centers. While primarily designed to provide a road safety monitoring system, it also gives law enforcement the ability to integrate video with a database of stolen car license plates.

     "Now when a stolen car is located on the highway, local police are alerted and, using situational awareness technology, the system controls traffic lights along the pursuit route, giving police the opportunity to stop perpetrators safely without resorting to high-speed chases," says Richard Howes, CEO of Steelbox Networks in Atlanta, Georgia.

Yet to come

     While there has been a dramatic increase in the number of public video surveillance systems, Philip Blackmon, executive vice president of CompuDyne in Annapolis, Maryland, says the real surge is yet to come.

     "There will be redundant systems, innumerable overlaps, and we'll be able to dissect a real-time occurrence from a variety of angles and with a variety of analytic considerations," Blackmon predicts.

     "We'll have better quality, higher-resolution images. We'll be able to more effectively zoom in on details or pan out to take in macrocosmic concerns, and we'll have steadily improving analytical tools."

     Blackmon believes deterrence values increase as technology evolves. The Dallas (Texas) Police Department knows this first hand.

     In March, Dallas activated a wireless video surveillance network, an initiative designed to the help reduce crime in its central business district. Before Dallas implemented this solution, they set up a pilot in another area downtown called Deep Ellul.

     "We noticed a perceptible drop in criminal activity," says Chief of Police Tom Lawrence.

     The network now is deployed over about 30 percent of the downtown area, so Lawrence expects even greater deterrence.

     "We expect to deter everything from the most serious felonies to misdemeanors," Lawrence says.

     Broader adoption of next generation surveillance throughout law enforcement, however, is often hampered by cultural resistance to change among security directors.

     "This is definitely true in the U.S. where many traditional security people balk at the learning curve involved in IP video," Hinkel says.

     Lawrence, however, encourages police departments not to hesitate to go wireless.

     "Wireless IP technology has come of age," he adds. "When we operated our pilot, we relied on wired technology. This was a mistake because your wired network is only as strong as its weakest link." The wireless system is self healing — if one link loses power, the video signal still goes through without any interruption in service.

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