Animal Kingdom

Quality video equipment is imperative for the monitoring of zoo inhabitants

The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium is one of the most interesting facilities of its kind in the United States. The 77-acre, naturalistic habitat zoo is home to thousands of animals, exhibiting 22 threatened or endangered species. In its more than 110-year history, the zoo has undergone several expansions and is one of only six major zoo and aquarium combinations in the country.

Open all year, The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium accommodates more than 1 million annual visitors. Keeping the facility safe and secure for both the visitors and the animal residents is of primary importance.

Keeping Watch
Video quality was a significant problem for officials at the facilities. For some time, zoo officials had been wrestling with the question of how to improve security and leverage surveillance video for the scientific observation of its animal population.

The zoo’s operations and IT team began a search to find a provider with surveillance technology that could improve video quality, increase retention and be intuitive enough for easy staff training.

“We’ve had camera systems installed on site for years,” said Connie George, director of marketing and public relations at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. “There was always this ongoing discussion surrounding image quality versus the length of time we preserved our video. We needed to keep it for a certain period of time for review purposes, and in order to do that, we made a trade-off on quality because of the cost involved.

“The resulting video quality was barely satisfactory, and we couldn’t always see the detail we wanted. We knew we needed to make some changes.”

These changes were made possible by deploying leading-edge technology that allows high-resolution video to be stored for long periods of time. The zoo deployed TimeSight System’s IP-based video surveillance platform, which provides automated video lifecycle management for networked surveillance systems. VLM is the practice of reducing the amount of storage required to retain video surveillance over its useful life, based on its value to the business in protecting against risk.

VLM, which allows the highest-quality video images to be stored for long retention periods, seemed a perfect solution to the zoo’s desire to extend its 15-day video storage limitation. TimeSight’s VLM enabled the zoo to extend its retention to several months, while increasing the quality of video, especially early in the retention period.

Room to Grow
The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium had some distinct challenges -- as well as unique usages -- in mind when TimeSight Systems first assessed the security needs of the facility. Clearly, the sheer size of the complex, along with its future growth opportunities, made the flexibility and scalability of the system a prime consideration.

In addition to the legacy analog cameras that needed to be seamlessly integrated into the systems, the zoo was looking to increase the number of cameras and use the latest megapixel technology. Beyond the technical requirements, officials at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium also wanted to be able to store video over a long period of time, in order to observe the animals’ behaviors, gestation periods and potential health issues.

TimeSight’s NVR platform was installed at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium to help protect visitors, animal residents, zoo employees and exhibits, and to provide the long-term audit ability and accountability officials desired. The scalability of data collection and storage had been an ongoing issue. The NVR platform provided the zoo and aquarium with a high-quality surveillance system and months, instead of days, of video storage, aiding the zoo in its security efforts.

“By having up to one year of storage for certain cameras, the zoo also is confident in its ability to be covered for the statute of limitations for things like slips and falls and employee workers compensation claims,” George said.

Based upon their needs, most video is stored for six months -- with the highest resolution for at least 30 days, then down to a more standard viewing quality, and finally down to archival -- all on a single server the size of a pizza box.

Surprising Benefits
Beyond security, the installation resulted in better surveillance and improved the facility’s ability to observe visitor trends, allowing officials to be prepared for increased populations at specific times. The improved surveillance has provided additional benefits, as well.

“The higher-quality images provided from the cameras in our birthing dens allow us to feel confident that we can assess the well-being of mother and baby, without interrupting the bonding process,” George said. “The video is of such quality that we also can use it as a marketing tool. For instance, we can send video of a brand new cub to our local television stations to be used on the air.”

This NVR system also enables the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium to assign the viewing capabilities of certain cameras to specific people. These camera designations allow staff to fully focus on their particular area and be more ready to respond when the need arises.

“We can respond quickly to an animal in distress or a potential vandal,” George said. “We can store the video, for a great deal of time. It gives us an extra sense of confidence to know we can look back and review footage if questions or situations arise.”

Doug Jones, IT manager for the zoo, also was impressed with the ease of integrating TimeSight’s technology into the Pittsburgh Zoo’s current infrastructure.

“It is easier for users of varying technical skills to search, find and view archived information,” Jones said. “Having one client, which is an easy install, was a blessing. I was impressed that I was able to train various users in minutes as opposed to days.”

The improved surveillance capabilities at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium have offered obvious benefits, and facility officials plan to continue the expansion.

“High-quality video has provided us with a great deal of information that has been very useful,” George said. “The system is very scalable with lots of room to grow. We can add more cameras at a higher megapixel range than would have previously been dedicated to storage.

“Now, we can use these cameras in more interesting ways. We have the infrastructure in place, and it’s working very well for the zoo, so it’s natural that we would have technology expansion plans for our future. We are looking forward to adding more cameras to monitor things we have not been able to in the past.”

About the Author

Charles Foley is the CEO of TimeSight Systems, Inc., who develops unique technology in the realm of video lifecycle management (VLM), which allows enterprise security users to leverage newer megapixel camera networks while using up to 90% less storage than conventional systems. His background includes serving as the Chief Technology Officer for publicly-traded storage networking leader INRANGE Technologies, and Vice President of Worldwide Marketing and Strategy for the Amdahl Corporation.


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