Eyes in the Sky

Virginia terminals program network cameras to inspect port containers remotely

About 700 cargo containers, some weighing as much as 80,000 pounds, flow to and from the rail yard at the international marine terminal in Norfolk, Va., each day. In the months leading up to the Christmas season, that number can surge to more than 900 containers per day. And in the coming decades, the Virginia Port Authority predicts that containerized cargo volume to and from the rail will triple. Driven to find a way to efficiently manage this enormous increase in commerce to the port, Virginia International Terminals Inc., the organization chartered to operate all the marine terminals owned by the authority, took an innovative approach to handling the growth.

VIT laid additional rail lines in the middle of the Norfolk terminal, invested in new container handling equipment and deployed an array of Axis network cameras to expedite the administrative tasks of logging in and inspecting containers as they moved to and from the rail yard.

"To operate more productively, we've consolidated our rail volumes to six tracks in the center of the terminal and will soon double that track count to 12 to handle volume increases," said Tony Simkus, director of engineering and maintenance for VIT. "We expect the network cameras to help us handle the increased cargo with the inspection staff we have in place."

Cameras are Faster Than Feet

"One of the driving factors for this solution was speed," said David Lindquist of Port Solution Integrators, the company that installed the network cameras and designed a custom camera command and control application for the Norfolk port operation. "It's a lot faster for the network camera to take snap shots of a container from multiple sides than to physically walk up and down a container track. Plus, you don't run the risk of an inspector being hit by one of those massive cranes or stackers."

Lindquist's company installed 32 network dome cameras on 100-foot-high light poles surrounding the central rail yard. The cameras' PTZ capabilities and 35x optical zoom allow inspectors to remotely examine containers in a rail yard that stretches a length of more than six football fields. Using a joystick at their workstation to instantaneously manipulate the cameras, inspectors can zoom in on a container's number, the slot number of a container's location on the track and even the rail car number from which it originated or is destined.

"It provides a far better working environment for our employees who inspect containers for our import/export operations," Simkus said.

Instead of walking the yard in sweltering 100-degree temperatures or bonechilling sleet or snow, inspectors can capture container information from the comfort of an environmentally controlled administrative office. A video wall of 12 high-definition monitors displays container detail that inspectors then upload into the database.

Though the technology is advanced, Lindquist maintains that the software to run the surveillance cameras is user friendly.

"After two hours of training, inspectors have the skills they need to do their job," Lindquist said. "And once they're on the job, they become quite expert at maneuvering the cameras for their needs."

Compromised Connectivity

Because VIT already had the IP infrastructure in place, connecting the Axis network cameras to the fiber network was similar to attaching any network peripheral. But when mounting the cameras 100 feet in the air, Port Solution Integrators needed to factor in the weight of the outdoor, shielded Cat-5 cable. To avoid stretching and breakage, the integrator supported the cable's considerable weight by incorporating steel messengers in the Cat-5, which was then wrapped around the light poles. Lindquist's team ran separate 110-volt cables to power the housings that provide heat and cooling to the network cameras.

While the cameras on the light poles could be wired directly into the network, Lindquist faced a different challenge with the cameras mounted on the reach stackers— the giant container handlers that attach to containers and lift them off the rail cars.

"We couldn't string a communication cable to moving equipment, so we had to use a wireless network," Lindquist said. "But controlling a camera over a wireless network is a bit sluggish."

According to Lindquist, a wireless network doesn't always provide enough bandwidth to trigger an instantaneous camera response. In his experience, frustrated operators typically send a command multiple times when they don't get an immediate reaction. So when the camera finally receives the stacked-up packets, it executes the repeated commands and overshoots the mark.

To compensate, Port Solution Integrators programmed a series of presets to reside in the network cameras. Based on a series of events that typically occur in the course of handling a container, the camera automatically performs a series of operations. Through resident video analytics, when the camera senses a particular external event, such as a reach stacker attaching to a container, it executes a sequence of preset moves to scan down the container and transmit a series of 3 or 4 frames per second via FTP to an administrative application for later viewing. Based on the size of the container, the lifting of the reach stacker arm to a specific height and arm extension to a specific length, the camera records the condition of the container's sides and bottom.

Inspectors reviewing the images decide whether the container is free of damage and can continue on its journey or someone needs to repair the container or reload the contents into another unit. The images also serve as proof that any damage occurred prior to or subsequent to the terminal's handling of the container.

"This visual archive provides the critical documentation we need to determine our liability in insurance claims," Simkus said.

Ramping Up Import Operations

Having finished the pilot phase, the Axis network cameras have now gone live to aid Norfolk in streamlining its deramping operation, which involves exporting containers from the rail cars to the terminal. In the next phase, Port Solution Integrators will roll out a surveillance solution to address the terminal's import or ramping operations. The integrator plans to mount network cameras on cranes to survey waterside operations.

These high-resolution HDTV cameras with 12x digital zoom provide extremely high image detail, allowing operators to remotely inspect containers as they're being lifted off cargo vessels docked at the port.

Lindquist said the cameras will take pictures of the four sides and bottom of the container, and send the images to the inspector's workstation for analysis. Once the containers are stacked on the dock, the PTZ cameras mounted on the light poles will take pictures of the top and send those to the inspector as well.

If the container is damage-free, the inspector approves its movement to the rail car. If there's damage, the inspector can issue a repair ticket for maintenance and engineering.

"It's important to be able to document that the container was intact when it came off the boat, in case the railroad claims damage," Lindquist said.

Enhanced Efficiencies

The commonwealth of Virginia has set its sights on becoming the premier international gateway for the East Coast. For its part, VIT continues to look for ways to apply cutting-edge surveillance technology to intermodal container operations.

VIT is already investigating optical character recognition technology, which will automatically digitize containers and track rail numbers, enabling inspectors to input tracking data with a single keystroke.

The integrator also is developing analytics software that will highlight container anomalies, drawing circles around image areas that the camera detects are out of specification.

"Having the camera flag an anomaly and identify the container's number and slot location will help inspectors to respond more quickly to problems that need their intervention," Lindquist said. But he cautions that the analytics is "just another tool for them, not the ultimate decision maker."

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