A couple of years ago I faced a health crisis that sidelined me, as far as physical activity goes, for the better part of a year. Thank God that’s all in the rearview mirror now and I have fairly well adjusted to the “new normal.”
It was during that period of imposed physical inactivity that I learned some things that were useful to me then and remain so now.
My job is primarily performed behind a desk and has been for years. I have great people in the individual markets and have no need to micromanage them. Rather, I serve as more of a resource for them, providing them with the tools, equipment and training they need to do their jobs.
Even so, to effectively do that, I would travel quite a bit, hitting all the markets every few years, giving me some face time with our people and eyeballing the facilities and equipment. With the information that I gathered during those trips, I was much better equipped to provide resources and planning for the facilities.
So it was with some frustration that I tried to perform at that same level without being able to travel and lay eyes on the sites and facilities. I was hamstrung and needed a solution.
It occurred to me that we had arrays of security cameras at many of the sites. Some I could tap into remotely and actually see the sites, although the field of view would be limited to those of the individual cameras, which were strategically located and pointed at areas of specific interest that did not necessarily coincide with what I wanted to see.
Still, those cameras did give me a window to the world, and they did provide some useful information. That, along with the GUI interfaces of critical pieces of equipment, allowed me to look in at will and gauge the overall health of many of our studios and transmitter sites.
While all that was going on, one of our markets did some upgrades to its studio and tower site cameras. The engineering manager there had found a source of reasonably priced high-resolution, dual-mode cameras and network video recorders, or NVRs. I was impressed with the quality of the images, which was infinitely better than the 480i images we had been working with. In fact, we had some instances of trespassing at one of our Southern California facilities — thankfully no damage — and I was completely unable to recover any identifiable facial images. It got me to thinking that the images from our DVR-based 480i surveillance systems were no better than those blurry bank robber images we so often see on the local news that invariably make me think, “Sure, I recognize that guy.” Right.
It was at that point that I vowed to make improvements — big improvements — and I would do it with the same family of equipment that we had already installed and were using in one market.
In the past, we have used contractors for video surveillance systems, but it seemed to me that this newer equipment, which uses Ethernet to connect cameras to NVR, could easily be installed by our own people and at a considerable savings. I also knew that our people would do a much better job of the installation than the typical security system installer.
LET’S PEEK IN
We started with our Denver locations, installing 4K dual-mode fixed bullet cameras in strategic locations and 4K dual-mode PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) dome cameras where they would have the most unobstructed views of the site.
Installation was easy. Running the Cat-5 cables was the hardest part. Mounting of cameras on block walls was done with concrete anchors, and all wiring connections were made inside the walls (or better said, were made outside with the connection then pushed back into the wall cavity where it would remain dry and out of the elements).
Camera power was provided by PoE (Power over Ethernet), built into the switch inside the NVR. That eliminated the need to run separate power cables, as had been done with the older 480i coax-based systems.
The NVRs came without hard drives, but a quick trip to Micro Center took care of that. We purchased a pair of 4 TB 3.5-inch SATA drives for each NVR and installed them in the places provided. The systems recognized them and we were off to the races. Western Digital makes a line of “Purple” hard drives specifically for this purpose.
The remainder of the project at each site involved opening the appropriate ports and setting up routing so that we could log into the NVRs from the outside world.
Once that was done, we could peek in with the browser of our choice or a mobile app. We could look at live views of any of the cameras, pointing the PTZ camera at whatever was of interest, or we could look at recorded material going back several weeks. We set the PTZ cameras up to “tour” the site, moving from view to view continually after a suitable timeout following manual control.
In addition to giving us regular looks at various points of interest in the recorded material, the continuous movement of the “Eye of Sauron” should give intruders the impression that someone is watching!
NEW WAYS OF MONITORING
We quickly found out some interesting things about these network-based systems.
One is that we could, in many cases, visually check the tower lights with the PTZ. Another is that we could set up motion detection zones and schedules on individual cameras — and that rain and insect activity would often trigger the motion alarms.
We also found that we have a lot of interesting critters roaming our sites, especially at night. At our mountaintop site in Orange County, California, we regularly see deer, coyotes and occasionally really big kitty cats.
As for resolution, it is outstanding. It’s no problem pulling a facial image or even a license plate number from the color day or IR night images. It’s easy to see if the grass needs cutting, or if someone left a gate or door open, or how often a contract engineer visits the site and how long he stays.
We can also see what the weather and ground conditions are at the sites, which can be significantly different than the weather and conditions just a few miles away.
In short, together with web-based SNMP-enabled remote control systems and equipment GUI interfaces, we now have a means of monitoring our sites in ways we didn’t even dream of just a few years ago. In addition to monitoring our equipment, we have a way to get high-resolution real-time visuals from our sites, and this goes way beyond security applications. It’s true that with these new surveillance arrays, we can remotely investigate alarm system trips to see if they’re real or not, and we do give our security monitoring contractors logins so they can do this, but the uses go way beyond that for our purposes. It’s almost like having a manned site.
The cost, if you do the installation yourself, is a lot less than you might think. NVRs are about $300 plus drives. Auto-tracking dual-mode PTZs are under $900. Dual-mode bullet cameras with remote zoom are under $300. The NVRs can handle eight cameras with the internal switch, but you can expand that with an external PoE switch.
With a state-of-the-art video surveillance system, monitoring of our transmitter sites has moved way beyond remote control.
Cris Alexander, CPBE, AMD, DRB, is director of engineering of Crawford Broadcasting Co. and technical editor of RW Engineering Extra.