Eyes in the Sky
Virginia terminals program network cameras to inspect port containers remotely
- By Fredrik Nilsson
- Jul 01, 2009
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
"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
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,"
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
"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."
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
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
"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,"
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
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
"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.
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