New Tech Takes a 'Toll'

December 1, 2006
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There’s a shift in the way enterprises view access controls, security management and life safety. While cards and readers continue to pull heavy duty, more often chief security officers center on the power of databases, security video and analytics.

Another business trend: the convergence of physical access control with financial and transaction processes that support business bottom lines.

And nowhere are these changes more visible than in operations that involve vehicles. Tollways in many states now offer long-range radio frequency identification (RFID) “tags” for vehicles so that cars and commercial vehicles can access the tollway without stopping while also paying for the privilege. Less sophisticated RFID systems act as the access control into office building garages and gate-guarded communities. Some healthcare and government buildings now use security video connected to license plate recognition to permit access.

CARDS TO VIDEO ACCESS

While they won’t kill off cards anytime soon, the combination of IP security video and image content analysis has the potential to quickly reach access decisions while also working with databases of pictures, data or even audio.

A case in point – The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) is now upgrading from an analog security video monitoring and security system to an IP-based version. The dual IP/analog interface on the cameras allows for a seamless migration of the existing 600-plus surveillance cameras, Tollway officials stated to media. The magic: The design provides an analog solution while backend content analytic system developers also make the transition to IP for the more than 200-plus traffic cameras covering 54 miles of Texas toll facilities in the Dallas Metroplex.

The IP cameras “allow us to better carry out every aspect of our mission to provide a fiscally sound system of innovative toll facilities, services and solutions that improves the mobility, quality of life and economy of the North Texas region,” said James Hofmann, director of IT at the NTTA. “The system lowers the total cost of ownership compared to our legacy installation, while improving the safety and satisfaction of our customers.”

FAST ACCESS LANE

The NTTA’s video monitoring and security system is designed to monitor the 1.3 million toll transactions that take place daily, tollway officials said. The system carries out two core functions: First, it monitors conditions on the roadway for any situation or condition that might slow traffic or put travelers at risk. Second, it guards each toll plaza and on ramp, protecting property and personnel from criminal activity.

Since the initial pilot installation of what transportation officials call Intelligent Transportation Systems or ITS, over 200 pole-mounted cameras located at half-mile intervals on the roadway have been installed to keep constant watch for accidents, breakdowns and any other hazards that affect the flow of traffic. When the desire to migrate to the emerging IP-based system became clear, tollway authorities said there were increasing demands on the extensive fiber optic infrastructure created to support the rapid growth of NTTA’s roadways. Converting from analog to IP cameras significantly reduced fiber requirements, and eliminated the need for costly fiber transmission gear.

“The NTTA came to us asking how we could help move them to the IP platform, and to identify vendors who could assist,” said Kelly Black, NTTA account manager for SecureNet, a Carrollton, Texas-based security firm that has served as NTTA’s security technology partner since the initial security installation.

The biggest challenge in implementing the new system was devising a way to segue seamlessly from analog to IP, tollway officials said. The fact that a key content analysis package used to recognize events on the roadway was analog-only compounded the complexity. Early on in the search process, it was clear that dual-feed cameras could address this issue. They allow the analog elements of the system to operate alongside the IP capabilities until the back-end analytics catch up to allow for end-to-end IP operation.

OPTIMIZING RESPONSE, SAFETY AND EFFICIENCY

“Our legacy system worked fine, it’s just that there was no way we could evolve and advance with it,” said Marty Legé, NTTA Command Center Manager. “IP is where everything is going because of the new applications and the new opportunities they afford. Automated detection is essential to operating a system like this effectively, and it is clear that the IP platform is where the content analysis developers are moving and so we move with them.”

The benefits of improved analytics come through speedier, more appropriate responses to everything from fast-breaking situations and simple breakdowns to assisting police by observing numerous traffic stops that occur weekly, tollway authorities said.

After the analytics detect a situation, other cameras come into play to investigate the scene and determine the appropriate response. Being able to tailor a response to specific needs, rather than providing a standard blanket response saves money, and can provide an extra degree of safety.

“If we don’t need to dispatch a fire truck and an ambulance, that saves everyone a lot of money,” Legé said. “But if there’s a hazardous spill, we can have the first responders ready for what they’re up against before they put themselves into danger.”

NTTA’s Hofmann noted the numerous savings. The installation cost in a typical toll plaza is $140,000 less than the equivalent analog setup, Hofmann said. Ongoing savings come from the simplicity of the system, the non-proprietary architecture, and ability to perform routine maintenance remotely, among other infrastructure savings.

“We are only able to run up to eight analog cameras on a fiber optic strand under current standards, while we can connect up to 72 IP cameras. We expect to have 1,000 cameras online next year, and there’s major savings in the significant reduction of fiber strands required,” Hofmann said.

Daily maintenance, too, is far less expensive monitoring the cameras’ status via two-way IP connections, Hofmann added. A single technician can keep an eye on the entire camera array. Before, multiple crews had to be dispatched on location at odd hours shutting down lanes to provide such proactive equipment maintenance.

From Hofmann’s IT perspective, a focus on open systems gives him comfort that the investment in the IP cameras today will continue to reap rewards for many years to come. “What gets me excited as an IT director is a camera’s open API,” Hofmann said. “The software analytics are growing tremendously, and we won’t have to replace these cameras as new capabilities become available. The open architecture lets us leverage our investment, while our system continues to advance.”

Sidebar: Inside the Texas Tollway System

The IP-based system being phased into the North Texas Tollway Authority design includes Sony IPELA cameras.

Sidebar: RFID Adds to Access Controls

Card access controls provide a needed level of security but when it comes to trucks, ships and cargo, chief security officers look for other options.

One solution -- Radio Frequency Identification tags and readers help provide real-time cargo location and security information that can be accessed with information services worldwide, including international and national ports. In such designs, the data are transmitted automatically over radio frequencies to a Web-based software platform to keep better track of tagged containers and environmental changes inside them.

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