Taking Off

Surveillance never takes a holiday, nor does it sleep

Today’s progressively faster pace of life rationalizes the thirst for near-constant connectivity. An October CTIA wireless trade group report points to the number of active mobile devices outnumbering people in the United States—more than 327 million devices compared to 315 million humans in the states and territories. Surveying a bustling city sidewalk on a normal day, it would appear we are not connected only when we sleep.

And sleep we must; however, in the surveillance world, there is always a camera nearby to capture the action. So it makes sense that businesses, homeowners and others increasingly look to mobile surveillance tools as a new way to keep an eye on things during waking and sleeping hours, 24/7.

How Far We Have Come

Mobile surveillance has come a long way since the seeds began to sprout about five years ago. BlackBerry and Java phones ruled the era, with erratic video quality and many reception challenges. BlackBerry Edge was considered the superior choice for video reception even though continuous video streams were scarce. Still, users got value through simply being able to monitor locations while on the move.

The innovative operating systems of the iPhone and Android devices—not to mention the Windows phone and improvements in BlackBerry—have made continuous live-video streaming a reality. The addition of Wi-Fi capability brings far greater bandwidth advantages than 3G and 4G connections.

“Screen size of mobile devices, ease of Internet connectivity and enabling Wi-Fi on mobile devices have made a big difference in improving the user experience,” said Sri Palasamudram, CEO of mobiDEOS, maker of the MobileCamViewer mobile surveillance application. “3G and 4G limits bandwidth based on the number of users per tower, and in busy places such as an airport or train station the reduction in per-user bandwidth is noticeable. Factoring in this variance and still providing acceptable quality of service (QoS) is key.”

Users on the go are tasked with the challenge of having enough bandwidth to take in the feed. Often, the feed collapses without the appropriate amount of bandwidth, making it potentially difficult to properly survey the landscape and plan an appropriate response to a situation. Applications like MobileCamViewer manage the bandwidth constraint and retain high image quality by dynamically reducing the number of frames, instead of sending many frames at low quality.

“4G improves on 3G with faster data transfer rates—nearly 10 times the amount—but it still doesn’t provide an HD experience with 16 frames per second,” Palasamudram said. “Nevertheless it provides enough information to make the right decision while on the go, and the technology continues to improve.”

Technology Advances

Bigger device screens—hello, tablets—and noticeably faster processing quality are the obvious new device improvements on the surface. There also are a variety of advancements beyond the consumer device that are taking mobile surveillance to new users— and new markets.

Public safety is one such area. Law enforcement agencies are gradually working more remote monitoring and mobile surveillance technologies into the mix, particularly in populated cities where it can be challenging to reach the scene of a crime to catch the culprits. Arming police officers and security guards with an iPhone can provide an immediate reference point upon notification of a crime or event.

“Law enforcement officers are using mobile surveillance to watch secure live video images of criminal activity directly from their smartphones,” said Stephen Cercone, retired police chief and president of Police Chief Consultants LLC, which advises technology firms, attorneys and public agencies. “This is a huge advantage on the street as it allows officers to assess situations before they take action. It greatly enhances officer safety and captures valuable evidence at the same time.”

Cercone should know—the FBI National Academy graduate spent 29 years in law enforcement, finishing his career as chief of police for the Seaside, Calif., Police Department. Cercone also served with the San Mateo, Calif., Police Department and Bellevue, Wash., Police Department. He sees growing interest in the integration of mobile surveillance technology with existing fixed municipal systems.

“City-wide video surveillance systems, whether widespread or in concentrated areas, greatly expands the options for officers if they have the added ability to watch live images from a mobile device,” Cercone said. “I really see it as a game-changer for an undercover detective or a street officer accessing a utility pole camera from around the corner of a trouble spot.”

Newer PTZ cameras with networking capabilities make the connection easier to make. IP pole cameras from Axis, Mobotix, Sony and others can integrate with capable software solutions to enable multi-window viewing, for example.

Cloud-based software solutions like mobiDEOS’ Pole Camera application take it a step further by allowing law enforcement agencies to assign a large number of officers to monitor activity among public walkways, busy intersections, university campuses, crowded parking lots and other active locations. Built-in multiplexing technology improves on traditional pole-cam solutions that limit access to one or two officers due to cellular bandwidth upload limitations from the pole camera.

“Cameras mounted on utility or tactical extension poles typically have very low upload bandwidth, making it difficult for multiple users to view cameras at the same time,” Palasamudram said. “The purpose of using cloudbased technology is to efficiently reuse the same video feed to reduce ongoing bandwidth costs. This effectively addresses bandwidth restrictions so that the effectiveness of tactical operations are not limited, minimizing officer safety risk.”

Surveillance in the Business Universe

The greater business community has shown plenty of interest in the technology. Construction companies can benefit from monitoring new home developments and shopping center projects while in progress. Property managers can pull out an iPad and access cameras lining multiple apartment buildings.

In addition, mobile surveillance seems to be catching on, especially in retail, service and school operations.

“The ability to see what is going on literally as it happens is a big benefit,” said Robert Oyster, responsible for three Shell and Chevron gas stations in the eastern region of the San Francisco Bay Area. “We had a recent incident where a customer drove through the front window of one of our stations. Having been informed of the incident, I was immediately able to take out my iPhone and in seconds see the situation ‘live’ from the viewpoint of my CCTV cameras and speak to my employees before making the hour-long journey to the scene.”

The sharp reduction in site visits seems to be a recurring theme among mobile surveillance users in the business world. A large majority of alarms are actually false alarms—as many as 97 percent, Palasamudram said. The ability for business owners and managers to confirm that there is even a problem before getting in the car in the middle of the night is a sanity-saver, for obvious reasons, but also a cost reducer in many instances.

Take John Huffman, superintendent of Victory Christian School, a private K-12 institution in Carmichael, Calif. Huffman uses MobileCamViewer on his Android smartphone to monitor activity at the school captured through his Dedicated Micros speed dome cameras while away from the campus. The move has saved him hundreds of dollars so far—a modest amount at quick glance, but savings that are sure to grow based on eliminating law enforcement visits based on false alarms.

“Each false alarm costs the school $150, and we had built up hundreds of dollars in fines due to unnecessary emergency response by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department,” Huffman said. “Keeping the police from responding unnecessarily helps us keep our operating costs down.”

Huffman has been able to avoid site visits through specific actions. He has witnessed a teacher accidentally trip an alarm, with time to call the police and cancel the visit. He has otherwise been able to make informed decisions based on activity at sporting events and general trespassing on campus.

“The importance of mobile surveillance in today’s education environment and the benefits it brings in terms of peace of mind and student protection are vital school safety issues,” Huffman said. “I feel comfortable being able to see what is actually going on, and it saves me trips to the school if I am at home in the evenings.”

He added, “At the very least, it saves us money while providing up-to-theminute security.”

Search and Rewind

Huffman’s mobile surveillance solution, like many, also includes a central DVR to store evidence of suspicious activity. More DVR and NVR solutions, such as those from Dedicated Micros, JVC and Milestone, are beginning to expose their application programming interface (API) modules to enable network connectivity with mobile surveillance software applications.

Retail businesses and warehouse operations are especially interested in recorded activity in the event of a theft or break-in and for checking on business operations.

Summit Sports, a retail operation with five stores in Auburn Hills, Mich., understands the importance of the recorder in the grand scheme.

“Our warehouse stores a lot of valuable sports merchandise and is constantly monitored for intrusions and unusual occurrences through onsite and mobile surveillance,” said Craig Burns, warehouse operations manager for Summit Sports. He uses an IC Realtime server to record activity from 32 cameras.

Unfortunately, some mobile surveillance users still have to drive to the location to access content from their servers and recorders, although new software enhancements are appearing on the market to address that inconvenience. It’s not a big deal for a manager to drive 15 minutes to work to look at recordings with police, but it is inconvenient to hop a plane back from the islands to address a situation.

mobiDEOS has added a playback feature to its software to specifically address that need. It essentially gives users access to previously recorded video right from the mobile device—without reliance on a separate stream or service to transmit content. Users can enter specific dates and times to access recorded content and highlight specific windows on the touchpad.

“The idea is not only to review security-related events but to also allow business owners to confirm stores opened on time, parents to verify when the kids got home and police to corroborate the exact time and location of a crime,” Palasamudram said.

This especially makes sense for businesses like nightclubs and financial institutions, where severe crimes can take place at the drop of a hat.

American Bank, headquartered in Allentown, Pa., is one such example of a customer that has deployed a now playback-capable system across banks in all 50 states using MobileCamViewer and Dedicated Micros SD Advanced recorders to store video and images.

Palasamudram said that banks and government agencies are especially opening up to mobile surveillance more due to advances in encryption and other forms of protection, such as enterprise solutions that manage network ports to keep hackers at bay.

“Enterprise operations can use special software that allow police to securely access video from cameras and recorders residing in a local area network or behind a firewall,” he said. “This avoids having to open ports for remote network access or burn a CD and snailmail it to law enforcement officials.”

Palasamudram also points to HTTPS encryption as a mobile surveillance enhancement that allows users to securely share video on public networks and remain protected from hackers without the inconvenience of relying on virtual private networks.

Systems Integration Perspective

Systems integrators confirm that they are hearing from more end users about integrating mobile surveillance into existing camera and recording systems.

“It’s becoming far more prevalent in our business,” said William Burnett, vice president of MB Technology in Pittsburgh. “We’re hearing from business owners that want to look in on their buildings and see that everything is going as expected.”

Burnett specializes in networkbased surveillance systems, noting the main challenge of selling end users on the system is explaining how everything ties together on the network. He increasingly favors software-based solutions that offer clean integration with mobile surveillance applications.

Burnett notes that when it comes down to the actual application, the main work for the integrators is testing compatibility of DVRs, NVRs and IP cameras with mobile devices while confirming all components can be remotely accessed with ease. He has recently migrated to software-based test equipment to simplify procedures.

“The testing process has always been cumbersome, and the process is that much more challenging when you are trying to balance a portable player or LCD monitor on the roof of the building,” Burnett said. He points to a recent project where he used the mobiDEOS Test Monitor application to check and confirm angles and levels while connecting multiple cameras to a networked IP video system on a large business campus.

“It’s a major timesaver compared to using a radio system to talk to an installer looking at the server in another building,” Burnett said. “Most importantly, I can pull up the cameras again after we leave the site to confirm settings and eliminate return visits when possible.”

It’s easy to imagine where mobile surveillance might be headed even as it moves through its formative years. Audio integration is poised to enter the picture, giving end users ears with the eyes. Residential users will continue to find new and innovative ways to monitor elderly parents and make sure the kids are behaving while still at work. Technology exists to synchronize cameras across fixed computers and mobile devices to give businesses and law enforcement agencies more effective ways to combat theft and crime. It’s a quickly evolving space, and it’s exciting to see what is coming around the bend.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Security Today.

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