The Facility Technologist: 21st Century Security

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the July 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Some facility security systems feature capabilities that would have seemed like science fiction even as recently as several years ago. New technologies are dramatically changing the way security is managed, including who (or what) is on the front line. From video surveillance tools that can fit in a pocket to autonomous robots that patrol a facility, the future of security is already here.

One significant development is with surveillance cameras. Those in the latest generation are smaller, more precise, and less expensive than their clunky, low resolution, 20th century counterparts. While older models are usually 12″ to 14″ in diameter, today’s tiny dome cameras typically measure about 4″ in diameter and include full pan-tilt-zoom capabilities. And newer, tiny hidden cameras can be as small as a quarter while costing less than $100.

Image resolution on surveillance cameras has increased due in part to improvements in charge coupled devices (CCDs). These devices create the images and algorithms that allow the video image to be compressed to smaller digital files, allowing more detail to be sent through a smaller signal.

Optics in the newer models are also better, which enables the cameras to zoom in and view great detail at tremendous distances. Equipped with one of these “latest generation” cameras, a facility manager my company works with was able to read the license plate on a car from almost a mile away.

Additionally, night vision used to be a specialty camera feature used primarily by military and law enforcement officials. Today, these infrared cameras are inexpensive and commonplace, allowing security staff to monitor large, darkened areas more effectively. Many of these cameras come complete with infrared illuminating lights built in, which means they can shed light on a dark area (a hallway, for instance) where there is no ambient light at all. Night vision cameras now cost only slightly more than regular cameras, in the range of $300 to $500.

Another area of security undergoing changes is the use of digital networked video. Instead of using coaxial cables and analog signals, today’s video systems are digital, transmitting signals in Internet Protocol (IP) format that can be sent through a computer network. This scenario has introduced an advantage to those responsible for facility security—they can view surveillance video from any network connection. The viewer can be anywhere in the facility or even connect through the Internet from an outside location.

As a result, more people can access the video feeds, which allows for more effective security operations. For example, when my company installed digital networked video in a large midwestern airport, a whole range of staff members suddenly had access to video feeds, whereas they never had before. The facility was able to enhance security substantially, because it now had access to video images from many more locations. This allowed personnel to coordinate their operations in the field more effectively.

With the increased flexibility of new technology, some managers are no longer using on-site security personnel to watch video camera feeds. Instead, they are consolidating personnel remotely into security offices that can access video of multiple locations from a single site. With fewer security officers needed to manage more locations, it is possible to keep a better eye on staff members, while also reducing labor costs.

Another benefit of digital network video is that it can be broadcast over wireless networks and viewed on mobile devices, such as laptops or PDAs. This allows a security officer in the field to see what the cameras see. In a recent demonstration with one of my clients, a security officer was able to view what was taking place just around the corner without being seen by the people he was watching. The officer was using a small pocket-sized “clamshell” computer to watch and control a nearby video camera through a wireless connection. In this case, the security officer was able to catch a pickpocket in the act because of the inconspicuous video equipment.

The consolidation of video and its surveillance illustrates another problem that technology can help to solve. When security personnel must watch large numbers of video feeds, they typically have a difficult time paying close attention to all of them. After all, the human attention span can be limited at times.

But computers are tireless workers, and some are now equipped to watch video so people don’t have to. This is possible with video analytics, a technology that views and interprets images. Video analytics software can detect people walking into areas where they shouldn’t be, can tell if someone has fallen down, and can differentiate between a person and an animal.

Video analytics use algorithms to analyze every pixel in the image and identify shapes, people, and movement. The addition of new functionalities requires only that a programmer create a new algorithm to look for additional behaviors. Some researchers have even been able to identify individuals by their facial characteristics or by the way they walk, although these capabilities are far from perfect.

Probably the biggest change in security is turning out to be the use of robots. Long thought to be a pipe dream belonging to the realm of futuristic entertainment, security robots are finally here and are becoming increasingly popular.

The PatrolBot from MobileRobots, Inc. (formerly ActivMedia Robotics, LLC) of Amherst, NH, is capable of navigating through facilities (including elevators) without bumping into walls or people. The units are modular, in that they can be equipped with a wide range of capabilities, depending on the facility needs.

PatrolBots feature wireless cameras that can be viewed from any network connected computer; in essence, this makes the robot a replacement for a human security officer. These robots can operate autonomously according to pre-programmed instructions, follow routine routes, and will alert a security guard if they detect people in areas where they shouldn’t be. These robots can also be equipped with sensors to detect hazardous chemicals or gases, fire, and floods.

So it looks like the science fiction films of yesterday are becoming the reality for today’s facility managers. Take hold of pocket video and charge up those security-bots. We’re headed for the future!