Resilient Surveillance in Rugged Environments
When it comes to using video in rugged terrain and remote locations, enterprise security professionals face a range of challenges.
You can’t always be inside. Outdoor facilities, property, valuables and more need surveillance, too. There’s dirt, dust and distance, as well as constraints on bandwidth. Then there are the vultures.
“We have a lot of big birds in south Texas, mostly vultures, and they love to land on any kind of array,” says Joshua Dean, director of security for the San Antonio, Texas Water System. “Every time they bump the camera, we have to dispatch someone to reset that.”
Despite the hazards, many industries depend on video as part of their security apparatus in remote and rugged areas, from oil fields to agricultural settings, from mining operations to border security. In recent years, evolutions in both hardware and software have combined to make ruggedized video solutions more affordable, and more effective.
One of the biggest challenges to video security in rugged or remote locations is the absence of connectivity. There may be no signal available to carry the video stream back to the operations center, or bandwidth may be insufficient to support real-time streaming. One solution: Build your own network.
In San Antonio, Texas, Dean’s team operates a dedicated radio network that connects more than 1,600 cameras covering about 150 potable-water sites. Not every security chief enjoys that level of funding, however. That’s where the recent software upgrades can help.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been tackling this problem along the southern border by deploying stationary and mobile cameras to cover the many hundreds of miles that make up the border, “but this stuff doesn’t work without comms,” says Jeremy Ocheltree, CBP assistant chief and acting deputy director of the CBP Innovation Team.
One solution involves emerging video management tools that are able to maximize bandwidth usage, either by slowing down the rate of video transmission or reducing it to transmission of single-frame images. “If you are out in the middle of nowhere without a lot of bandwidth, you can use a still frame every three seconds,” Ocheltree says. “If that gets you coverage in an area where you’ve never had it, that will still be a big improvement.”
Minimizing the data will save on bandwidth, but there’s a tradeoff: Without full motion, security pros may feel they are missing the context around an event. At Forrester, Senior Analyst Nick Barber points to new tools that have emerged from the smartphone world that are making their way into the security realm. “Software now allows operators to annotate or draw over video, enabling them to convey more information when you don’t have full-motion video,” he says.
While connectivity can be a challenge in rugged or remote settings, it is far from the only hurdle faced by security professionals. Video also is prone to false positives: In simple motion-alert mode, cameras are prone to fire off a signal for a racoon, or simply for leaves whipped by the wind. This is equally true for a camera in a parking lot, but it can be more problematic when the camera in question is affixed in a hard-to-reach site, where it can be difficult for security officers to validate the threat.
“In that kind of setting the false alarms can kill you, so you need something with highly reliable detections,” says Frank Pisciotta, president and CEO of security consultancy Business Protection Specialists.
New technology allows the operator to define more precisely the types of targets worthy of note. “For instance, you expect a human being to be upright, so you program it to look for more pixels in the vertical,” Pisciotta says. “You can also set it so an object only alarms if it moves from one location to another, moving from a zone that is far away from the fence and alarming when they are up close to the fence.”
The latest versions of this type of software are increasingly effective. “I was field testing this for a customer and it reliably detected humans running and walking. At the end of the test a big opossum came into view and because the pixels didn’t line up, it didn’t send an alarm,” he says.
Dean has lately turned to thermal cameras to weed out the false positives from remote sites. “We started piloting those years ago but were too expensive, but every year the technology continues to get cheaper. The price of a good thermal camera now is comparable to the price of a really good normal camera, so we have started using those,” he says. “When we do, there are fewer false positives: The leaves in the trees don’t have a thermal imprint like a human or a motor vehicle, so they aren’t going to trigger an alert.” That’s helpful – assuming your camera can survive what punishment the elements are going to throw at it.
Weathering the Storms
“In hard weather, sand storms, inclement places, that camera is going to wear out faster,” says Danielle VanZandt, a security industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan. “The housing will degrade and if the housing is protecting the chips, then then chips get exposed and you risk running into camera failure. Then you have to start replacing your cameras more often.”
The “IP” or Ingress Protection scale offers a standard to help security professionals gauge a camera’s sturdiness. A two-digit number describes intrusion protection (6 = tight against dust) and moisture protection (8 = protected against prolonged effects of immersion under pressure). So a 68 would in theory be utterly inviolable.
“We are seeing camera housings today at 66 and above,” VanZandt says. “They can be explosion proof, for example, for the chemical sector. For the food manufacturers, where they are spraying water like a firehose, they can take that.”
In rugged terrain you may need even more, though. What if there’s a lightning strike? That affects not just the box shielding the camera but also the circuitry inside. “You have to think about continuity, you have to make the thing resilient,” Pisciotta notes. “If you can live without it, why put it in in the first place? It’s got to be highly reliable.” He’s even steered clients toward emerging, bullet-resistant camera housings. “We’ve had to do that in public housing projects where you have the drug dealers shooting out cameras because they don’t want to be seen doing what they are doing,” he says.
The tools exist to deal with bandwidth issues, false positives, rough weather and even gunshots. Technology to the rescue, indeed. The greater challenge for security professionals may lie in discovering how to make best use of these emerging capabilities, how to gain the greatest security benefit without busting the bank.
Given the cost and complexity of a rugged video deployment, VanZandt encourages enterprise security professionals to work with a consultant or an integrator up front.
“You want to be a lot more thorough, do a lot more on-the-ground planning before you move into the installation phase,” she says. “The ruggedized cameras come with a premium price, so you need to understand the long-term cost of the system. Having a clear read on that can be a way for the security operations team to approach upper management and get funding for this kind of thing. You don’t want to put it up there and then get back in the operations center and find you can’t see anything.”
Once you’ve got the fundamentals in place, it also makes sense to invest thoughtfully in the back-end architecture. For Dean, smart video management is key to making use of hundreds of cameras spread out over hundreds of miles. With a centralized video management tool, “I can see what every single camera is doing, its health and any firmware updates that are needed,” he says. “When you have as many cameras as we have, you want to have one tool to manage all of that.”
Careful planning helps to keep costs under control, and digital tools can support efficient operations over time. At the end of the day, though, remote or rugged video as an aid to security may always be a balancing act.
Take for instance oil and gas exploration company Noble Energy with some 6,000 well sites spread around Colorado. “We’re not going to put cameras at 6,000 well sites, so it comes down to your risk assessment,” says Senior Security Manager Steve Brack.
Video can help security pros respond to situations more quickly, but more often than not, the images will be used for forensic purposes, he said. That being the case, security leaders need to weigh the cost against potential negative outcomes. “The most important variable is likelihood. If you have a risk with high consequence, but it’s a very low likelihood, then you are worrying about something that is not going to happen,” Brack notes.
This is a basic security calculation, but it carries special weight in rugged or remote settings, where the variables can be harder to isolate. “Then it’s more art than science,” Brack says. “Then you have to look at your risk appetite, at the criticality of what you are assessing. How would it negatively impact the organization if you were to have an event at that location? That’s always your starting point.”