Security cameras: Seeing is believing
Security camera technologies and their operating systems are progressing at a staggering rate. In this article JEFF SALTON speaks to representatives from two leading surveillance companies – Axis Communications and Bosch Security Systems – to learn about innovations in camera quality and flexibility.
No longer solely the domain of the security industry where men in smoke-filled rooms sit staring at a plethora of black and white monitors displaying the occasional fuzzy image, visual security and monitoring systems have emerged from the basement to sit comfortably alongside building management systems, if not totally integrated into them.
The adoption of Internet Protocol (IP) as the platform for delivering data captured by security cameras to a central location or recorder has brought about new technological developments and lower prices. This has enabled many facilities and companies to install sophisticated security monitoring systems that can be fully operated with very little training.
Bosch Security Systems’ Sean Borg, business unit manager CCTV, says the industry has had many technological advances with a focus on positioning the CCTV industry into the IP/IT industry.
“To the layman, the advances may not be that obvious, but, in a nutshell, we have developed new code and algorithms as well as very smart topology dimensioning attributes that now allow an IT administrator to comfortably have an advanced CCTV system that can stream and record true live images and extrapolate those images from anywhere in the world using his or her IT infrastructure, and not loading down the bandwidth or costing a great deal,” he says.
Borg’s colleague at Bosch, Phillip Brewer, business line manager – CCTV Projects, adds: “Security and surveillance cameras have increased the amount of image processing power inside of them. This means that the camera can make useable pictures in scenarios that were once impossible.
“Some examples include very low light scenarios on perimeter fences and brightly backlit entrance foyers. An example of such a camera with increased image processing is the Bosch Dinion 2X camera with 20-bit image processing. Using exclusive Bosch sensor and DSP (digital signal processor) designed technology, this camera can be used in any difficult lighting scenario,” he says.
“Monitoring software can be used for many purposes, such as live viewing, playback and even forensic search of certain events seen by the cameras. Additional functionality is available over IP/network infrastructure, such as remote site monitoring and video verification of alarms.
Australian country manager for Axis Communications, Wai King Wong, says
“IP started back in the 1996 Internet boom – 56k modems, where one frame per second for camera technology was considered ‘live’ footage. Today we are doing ‘real time’ – in high definition (HD).”
HDTV quality can deliver upwards of 720p1 resolution.
Wong says moving from an analogue signal to digital allows users to get more from the cameras.
“It’s now easier to store images, transport them, edit them and access them. Digital also lets users choose the level of quality they want (noting that higher resolution images take up more storage space because they are larger files). You can choose low resolution, middle-range resolution to very high resolution. This will also depend on what the imagery is to be used for. If you need to identify faces, or use the footage as evidence in court, the higher the resolution the better.”
Wong says having equipment that specifies HDTV quality guarantees that the images you have access to will be in real time, of at least 720p quality and reproduced in true colours.
He adds that today’s cameras are so sophisticated they can be used as broadcast cameras in their own right.
Borg says: “CCTV cameras have been evolving for the past 30 years and in leaps and bounds every two to three years, showing a remarkable difference in image quality. We are utilising those wonderful evolving technologies and adding more sophisticated IT options to them, like Ethernet onboard and onboard Video Content Analysis, which allows the cameras to be more proactive in making decisions for you.
“A typical Bosch CCTV Network camera can tell if an object has been removed from a scene where people move around all day; or, just as importantly, it can identify when an object has been left behind, which could be a briefcase in a foyer with a bomb inside it – these and many other progressive options are now available within our network cameras.”
Brewer says: “Ease of installation has also improved to reduce the time taken to correctly commission each camera. IP/network connectivity has allowed surveillance cameras to be deployed in more applications where there is network infrastructure. Over the network infrastructure, remote cameras can cost-effectively be connected to almost any location for recording and monitoring.”
THE EVOLUTION OF P-IRIS
P-iris is an automatic iris control system developed by Axis Communications, designed to give precise control over the iris opening using a stepper motor-driven iris and specialised software. Wong says that P-iris is expected to replace the DC-iris as the standard method of iris control in fixed Axis network cameras. The P-iris
communicates with the camera to deliver the right amount of light to produce the best possible image.
“The P-iris system has been developed to make improvements over the traditional auto-iris by giving better control over the aperture,” says Wong.
“In bright conditions an auto-iris lens may be subject to blurring caused by diffraction. This is when the surrounding light levels cause the iris to close too much. This is even more noticeable in megapixel cameras where the pixel size in the image sensor is a lot smaller than conventional standard definition cameras.
“This led to Axis developing an iris system where the user has greater control over the aperture and, by doing so, has provided greater image quality with higher contrast, increased clarity, higher resolution and better depth of field control.
“The old-style lens did not communicate with the camera. But the P-iris passes information through to the camera and asks the camera how much of the iris it should close to take the best picture. The camera, with the in-built smarts, then gives the lens the information required to provide the correct level of lighting.
“We are able to see the whole image without any depth of field issues,” he says. “In other words, everything in the image is able to be viewed in focus by enlarging the images. We could take a picture of a person in the foreground, who would be clearly in focus, but also zoom in on the background to read number plates on cars in a carpark, or read a T-shirt logo, etc.
“Why buy a 10MP camera and only use 30 percent of the image when you can purchase a 3MP HDTV camera and use the whole image?” he says, warning that larger megapixel cameras don’t necessarily mean better images.
“Purchasers of equipment should be aware that large megapixel cameras are not necessarily the best,” says Wong. “Users should specify they want HDTV quality cameras to enable them to futureproof their security/surveillance/safety equipment.”
P-iris technology is not patented but it has been released to the industry for its use, says Wong.
MORE IP ADVANTAGES
Borg says IP-addressable cameras are certainly proving to be popular, mainly due to their accessibility.
“You can now access your CCTV camera from anywhere in the world,” Borg explains. “For example, the boss may be on a holiday, but can still receive video verification of an incident at his or her premises.
“Speaking from a Bosch perspective, there is a very low level of expertise needed to retrieve data these days from a sophisticated management system; the power of a very user-friendly Graphics User Interface (GUI) is in the usability from zero exposure.
“Frankly speaking, within 15 minutes of ever seeing our system, one can easily playback pre-recorded video.”
“That is the attractiveness of these systems,” adds Brewer. “A PC-based GUI is very familiar with most people; a dedicated recorder the looks more complicated than a DVD player can be daunting.”
Borg adds: “Features like Video Content Analysis (VCA), 20-bit processing to capture highly illuminated alongside very dark areas at the same time while still making out clear descriptions of people within those areas, and other features such as onboard iSCSI mitigate the need for large cumbersome expensive servers between the raid storage and the cameras. These and many more features are prominent in our industry and especially within the Bosch range of IP CCTV.”
Wong states: “To take full advantage of this technology, the camera needs a fast processing board, just like a computer. The chipset is paramount to provide an holistic solution.”
Borg says the industry is divided very evenly between security and surveillance.
“It has become very apparent that having a security system is just as important as having a surveillance system – gone are the days when people could scam money from shopping centres, council and establishments by false trip and fall claims, as it is now all on camera. This in itself saves users many thousands of dollars in false claims that otherwise would have ended up in court, with possible settlement payouts to mitigate any more exposure to loss.”
“The only real technology challenge we face is not inventing technologies fast enough to keep up with the products Abby uses in NCIS,” Borg jokes. “One would be surprised to hear how many requests we get for technology that is still probably 5–10 years away, based on processor power. The clear roadmap for our industry is the path of HD.”
Wong says: “New cameras are coming equipped with an SD card as backup (just like a still camera) with many megabytes to store hours of video if the company’s network is down or under repair.
“Whenever the network goes down, (hopefully never, but occasionally for maintenance, etc) the camera records to SD, which can be downloaded on the network later. If the SD card has a 1Gb capacity, this could store up to seven days worth of recordings,” says Wong.
Cameras still rely on power to operate but they can be operated using powered Ethernet or the Power over Ethernet (PoE) standard. Qualified installers can run low-voltage (around 12V) power to the camera using the same Category 5 or 6 (common network) cable, which sends data back to the DVR or communicates with the control system, he says.
Remote pan/tilt/zoom and auto focus options mean cameras can be repositioned via a control panel, rather than manually, which is extremely valuable in dangerous and high traffic areas.
UPGRADE WITH FIRMWARE
Axis cameras can be upgraded with firmware to change their purpose or upgrade their uses.
“For instance, a security camera watching over a supermarket aisle could be upgraded to work as a people counter without having to upgrade the network,” says Wong.
“At train stations, cameras can be used to trigger an alarm if anyone moves past a certain point. For example, moving too far to the right on a platform could be dangerous; anyone entering this area would cause the camera to send an alarm to station personnel.”
APPS FOR CAMERAS
Axis says it is allowing any company in the world to develop intelligent software to be downloaded into one of its new cameras, like an app for an iPhone or iPad.
Source software can be downloaded online and the app can be tested through on online engine to see if it works or discern what needs tweaking.
“We think that in the near future you will be able to purchase a whole stack of software [apps] that you can upload to a camera to make it better suit your needs, as they change over time,” Wong says.
“It will allow large stores, for instance, to upgrade a security and monitoring camera to a device that counts people at sales time, and then reverts back to a security camera the other 11 months of the year.”
Because apps are cheap, Axis would also expect these apps for cameras to be very cheap.
“Bosch Security Systems,” says Borg, “is about providing high-quality, reliable solutions from a four-camera system to a 1000-camera and above system, fully supported by a highly skilled engineering and tech support team. This winning combination of talent, quality, reliability and innovation – all backed by a Fortune 100 company – will bring peace of mind to anyone making a CCTV decision going forward.”
“For the team here at Bosch Security Systems, our analogue and IP range of Bosch Dinion Cameras are by far the stand out cameras in image quality, features and reliability offering a 21-year mean time before failure on some of them, which is not heard of elsewhere,” concludes Borg.
1. 720p is the common reference for basic HDTV video modes, having a resolution of 1280×720 and a progressive scan. The number 720 stands for the 720 horizontal scan lines of display resolution (also known as 720 pixels of vertical resolution), while the letter p stands for progressive scan or non-interlaced. When broadcast at 60 frames per second, 720p features the highest motion resolution possible under the ATSC and DVB standards.
Jeff Salton, from Salton Media Services in Melbourne, is a freelance journalist.