Turning up the heat

Turning Up the Heat

Las Positas College protects its $4.5 million renewable energy project with thermal imaging cameras

The remote solar field was pitch black, yet the thermal cameras detected movement by the fence and sent out an alarm. The officer on duty at Campus Safety took one look at the thermal images streaming onto the video monitor and realized the magnitude of the alert. From the heat signature, he counted six intruders attempting to scale the fence.

He immediately called local law enforcement and dispatched a campus patrol car to the scene. Within minutes, the officer arrived with the spotlight blazing from atop his patrol car. Realizing they had been spotted, the culprits fled, but not before the safety officer noticed crowbars and other potentially destructive tools hanging from their backpacks.

“Without an alert from the thermal cameras, we’d never have known if an intruder had entered the solar field,” said Sean Prather, campus safety supervisor at Las Positas College. “That deterrent has probably saved us millions of dollars in potential damage or theft.”

In the past, thermal cameras were seen as pricey, high-end technology, primarily used in military operations, but recent advances have driven down costs, transforming them into affordable surveillance tools for institutions.

IP-based Axis cameras have become the campus standard at Las Positas College, and this thermal technology was seamlessly integrated into their existing network security system.

Securing Solar Fields after Dark

Las Positas College in Livermore, Calif. has always been a strong proponent of green technology. When the institution decided to construct a $4.7 million solar field with 4,680 panels in a rural, undeveloped area at the northern edge of the campus, the sustainability committee was focused on the 1.35 million watts of renewable energy that would be generated annually to help power the campus. As head of campus safety, Prather was focused on protecting this isolated, 5.3-acre site from theft and vandalism, especially at night.

Knowing that the fence surrounding the field was not sufficient protection for the college’s investment, Prather hired Electronic Innovations—a Richmond, Calif.-based security contractor—to devise a more secure solution that would detect and deter intruders.

“They needed a network-based system that would not only alert campus safety to the presence of intruders, but would give intruders an indication that they had been spotted,” said Aaron Klinglesmith, electronic systems supervisor for Electronic Innovations.

Given the prohibitive cost of keeping the property illuminated at night, Electronic Innovations knew conventional day/night surveillance cameras would not be an option. Using a design concept from a past solar project, the team decided to mount three AXIS Q1921 thermal network cameras onto tall poles alongside 1,500-watt halogen lights.

The thermal cameras monitor the fence line, and when one detects motion using the camera’s onboard analytics, every halogen light in the field instantly switches on. The sudden blast of light lets intruders know they have been discovered.

“We chose Axis thermal imaging cameras not only because they didn’t need light, but also because they could detect motion at long distances, and their sophisticated analytics would help us eliminate false alarms,” Klinglesmith said.

Electronic Innovations fine-tuned the camera analytics to make sure local wildlife— such as deer, birds, bats and cats—would not trigger the system.

“The last thing we wanted was for the lights to turn on every 10 minutes,” Klinglesmith said.

A Bright Spot in Perimeter Security

The thermal cameras in the solar field are connected via fiber optic cable to the AMAG Technology’s Symmetry Security Management System the college uses to manage access control, intrusion detection and video surveillance across the campus. When the cameras detect any motion in their field of view, they immediately send an alert to AMAG’s Symmetry system housed in the campus safety office.

Symmetry automatically puts the alert on the video monitor, indicating which camera triggered the alarm. The safety officer can watch the live video stream, determine the size of the intruding party and respond to the incident within minutes. Symmetry simultaneously broadcasts an email to safety officers’ smartphones to alert staff at the main desk and on patrol. Afterhours, Las Positas College works with an alarm monitoring company that calls campus safety officers directly when an alarm comes in.

The thermal surveillance system has already proven effective. Within the first few months of operation, the thermal cameras spotted several people hopping the fence line. The system sounded the alarm, and the halogen lights lit up. Back in the campus security office, an officer watching the monitor called the local police and dispatched a security patrol car to the scene. When the officer arrived at the field, spotlight blazing, the intruders fled the scene.

“Our response was so quick they never had a chance to vandalize or steal any property,” Prather said. “But, without that security system up there, we would never have known they were there until it was too late.”

Axis as Campus Surveillance Standard

The solar field was not the first Axis project on campus. When support for the college’s old analog camera system was discontinued, Las Positas decided to upgrade to IP video, and that’s when Electronic Innovations first introduced them to Axis network cameras.

“Once they saw the difference in image quality, the cameras sold themselves,” Klinglesmith said.

Las Positas soon decided to make Axis the campus standard going forward.

The college uses a mix of AXIS P3346 Fixed Dome Network Cameras and AXIS P5534 PTZ Network Cameras to give its students, faculty and staff a greater sense of safety on campus. Designed as an evidentiary tool, the surveillance cameras focus on high-traffic areas in and around areas like the new Student Services Center.

The automatic day/night feature of the three-megapixel AXIS P3346 Fixed Dome Network Camera delivers great resolution even in lowlight conditions. The college uses them primarily for hallways, stairways, building entrances, and exits.

“If tempers flare or there’s an altercation, we want to be able to go back to the video and see what really happened,” Prather said. “It’s a liability issue.”

The HDTV-quality AXIS P5534 PTZ Network Camera also delivers great resolution in lowlight conditions. This college primarily uses the PTZ cameras to monitor high foot-traffic areas around campus such as the outdoor cafeteria, the exterior entrance to the library and the parking lots.

The PTZ network cameras also are tied into several emergency call stations in the newly constructed areas of the campus. Normally, these cameras are set on automatic guard tour, but when a student in trouble presses the call button, the closest PTZ camera automatically snaps to that location, enabling campus safety to observe the situation and immediately dispatch an officer, if necessary. The autofocus feature of the 18x optical zoom and 12x digital zoom keep the image crystal clear even as the zoom is in motion.

“We use the cameras a lot in day-to-day activity,” Prather said. “For instance, if someone reports a medical emergency in the cafeteria, my dispatcher will continue viewing the cameras in that area as a safety officer responds so that he can keep the officer abreast of any changes in the situation before he arrives on the scene. The same is true if someone reports suspected criminal activity or complains about a disturbance of some kind.”

If there is an emergency requiring outside intervention, the Livermore Police Department (LPD) can assign an officer to the campus safety office to monitor the cameras live, alongside college staff. Eventually, the college hopes to provide the local police department with remote access to the cameras from their mobile command center.

Thinking Outside the Box

Las Positas College and Electronic Innovations continue to find novel applications for their network camera system. One project they are exploring involves using the high-resolution cameras to capture pictures of license plates at campus entrances and exits.

“We’ve already field-tested Axis cameras at those locations to monitor vehicles entering and leaving the campus,” Prather said. “What it proved was that not only would we be able to capture license plates, but we’d be getting great coverage of the pedestrian crosswalks and the intersections, too. From a liability standpoint, that’s really great because we get over 3,000 vehicles entering and exiting our campus daily.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Security Today.

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