Catching Crooks At Night Gets Easier

Low-light capability improves dramatically
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Infrared video view of a harbor using a Sierra-Olympic Technologies camera.

New video technology is pulling back the veil of darkness, helping law enforcement and security officers do a better job of detecting crime, protecting property, keeping people safe and catching bad guys in the act.

Once the sun goes down, criminal activity increases as burglars, robbers and thieves take advantage of the cover of darkness to ply their trades. According one industry study, 71 percent of vehicle thefts occur at night and almost half those surveyed said they feel unsafe walking around outside at night, regardless of their environment.

It’s tough to see at night and video technology has been hamstrung by these low-light conditions at high-crime spots like parking lots, city streets, schools, college campuses and construction sites. New technology, namely more sensitive sensor chips and better noise-filtering algorithms, is busting that trend.

The difference between old-tech monochrome cameras from 10 years ago to the current crop of high-sensitivity color HD IP-network cameras is remarkable.

With the old cameras, it was hard to tell the race of the suspect or the color of their clothing: a red sweat shirt easily could be depicted as gray. Surveillance video with full color is an important factor for successful identification, and this capability greatly enhances the user’s ability to effectively identify people, vehicles or incidents.

New HD day/night cameras provide clear pictures across the color spectrum, said John Merlino, business development manager for government programs at Axis Communications.

“I like to say it’s almost the alchemy, turning lead into gold,” Merlino said. “Black-and-white images from an evidence standpoint have holes and won’t be helpful to catch the bad guys. We can give you color images.”

Axis, a Sweden-based company, equips its Q1615 network cameras with the company’s Lightfinder technology that improves its night-time performance, Merlino said. The technology incorporates a CMOS sensor with high light sensitivity, as well as software to reduce video noise and increase image quality. In many cases, infrared illuminators are not required due to the camera’s extreme light sensitivity.

The indoor- and the outdoor-ready cameras can deliver multiple, individually configurable H.264 and Motion-JPEG video streams simultaneously.

DUAL CAPABILITY

Tech giant Panasonic this year rolled out the new 6 Series fixed-dome network cameras, which includes the HD-equipped WV-SFV611L. The six new cameras in the series can capture superior image quality under any lighting conditions, said Charles McCready, Panasonic’s senior product specialist.

Panasonic’s enhanced super dynamic and adaptive black stretch technologies deliver good performance in dynamic lighting conditions, McCready said. And the multi-process noise reduction and super chroma compensation functions ensure both bright and dark areas are faithfully reproduced with minimum video noise and accurate color reproduction even under low illumination.

All 6 Series cameras see well in the dark, providing detailed video images in light less than 0.01lux illumination. For zero lux, all include IR illumination that provides clear images of human faces and clothing without the overexposure common in other IR models.

“Just a few years ago, IP cameras were not known for low-light capability,” McCready said. “Now that has changed because the technology has improved. The cameras deliver very clean images in minimal lighting conditions.”

Also, cameras today are cleverly built, hiding the IR illuminators so the subject can’t detect they are being captured by the camera.

“They don’t know that their pictures are being taken,” McCready said.

Avigilon, based in Vancouver, Canada, produces a series of HD bullet-style video surveillance cameras that also use IR technology to capture detail in complete darkness.

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Avigilon HD bullet camera

The Avigilon adaptive IR illumination system automatically manages camera settings and infrared lighting to record clear images in surveillance footage that are lost by cameras using static IR illumination, said Rick Ramsay, senior product manager at Avigilon. This feature also matches the illumination to the scene so users can see image detail regardless of scene conditions. The company’s cameras also use the new LightCatcher technology that increases the amount of light and detail captured, while decreasing video noise in the image.

“Being able to identify faces in the dark is a huge advantage when securing your business and protecting your people,” Ramsay said. “Organizations around the world operate 24 hours a day. They need discreet, high-definition surveillance that provides business intelligence and protection to operate efficiently, regardless of the time of day.”

The Samsung Techwin America SCO-2120R camera features a 12x optical zoom and takes IR to another level. Its high-performance IR LEDs allow it to illuminate objects up to 200 feet away. The camera is powered by the company’s new W-V DSP chipset, which includes features such as true day/night operation. The Samsung super noise reduction feature eliminates image noise in low light, while capturing clear images in very low-light levels down to 0.2 lux, without the IR LED illuminators.

WIDE RANGE

Sony just released two new infrared bullet cameras, the SNC-EB632R and SNC-EB602R, that can operate over a range of lighting conditions, from full sunlight to complete darkness. Both feature Sony’s Exmor CMOS sensors and built-in IR illuminators.

The new cameras can identify close and distant objects, as well as generate color video in brightly lit environments. Clear black-and white-video is produced even in darkness, said Kenichi Mori, director of marketing and product management for Sony Electronics’ security systems division.

“Many security installations require IP cameras to function in lighting extremes, from full daylight to full darkness,” Mori said. “The SNC-EB632R and SNC-EB602R are true day/night cameras that can automatically adjust to the level of light in order to produce excellent video in almost any kind of lighting environment.”

They are also designed for the outdoors, use image stabilization technology to minimize the effects of camera shake and are IP66 rated to be water-proof and dust-tight, Mori said.

INTEGRATED IMAGING

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Pelco Sarix camera

Pelco by Schneider Electric goes one step further and adds a thermal imaging camera to the day-night, IR camera mix.

The company’s Sarix TI series thermal imaging cameras are designed to be an integrated part of any end-to-end video security solution, said David Dorn, applied technologies engineering manager for Pelco by Schneider Electric. Typically, the Sarix devices get coupled with one of the company’s Spectra IV day/night cameras, which provide clear images over a wide dynamic range.

“Thermal-image cameras work at long wavelengths and rely on heat emissions,” Dorn said. “That’s exciting for video security because it makes them good at detecting targets at a great distance. In a military setting, they can ID the type of vehicle that is coming across the border.”

The long-range alarm is a good complement to the Spectra HD cameras, which can provide an ID for a person from up to a half-mile away, even under difficult lighting conditions, Dorn said. The thermal/day-night systems are a good fit for critical infrastructure installations, like power plants, electrical substation, oil-gas facilities or wastewater treatment plants. They are also good at jails and prisons, he said.

“They are useful anywhere you have a perimeter and want good automated detection,” Dorn said. “They are not only good at keeping the wrong people out, but in preventing contraband from coming in.”

SPECIALITY DEVICES

The Toshiba IK-WR14A two-megapixel IP network dome camera includes some inventive features, such as single-reflection LED technology that provides edge-to-edge lighting for night-vision down to 0 lux.

Another intelligent feature is the built-in day/night IR filters that remove unnecessary colors in near complete darkness to sharpen the black-and-white image. For backlighting difficulties confronted when cameras face bright outside daylight, the IK-WR14A optimizes visibility by taking two samples of the same image, one at slow shutter for the dark area and one at fast shutter for the light area. These two images are then combined to avoid the subject being silhouetted.

Because the camera can scan very large viewing areas, such as a parking lot or a department store floor, a single IK-WR14A can replace as many as five standard-resolution (640 x 480) cameras, the company said.

MORE INFO Avigilon: www.avigilon.com

Axis: www.axis.com

Panasonic: security.panasonic.com

Pelco: www.pelco.com

Samsung: www.samsung-security.com

Sierra-Olympic: www.sierraolympic.com

Sony: www.sony.com/professional

Toshiba: www.toshiba.com

Sierra-Olympic Technologies, a privately-held supplier of infrared camera technology in Hood River, Ore., just rolled out a new uncooled, longwave infrared security camera. The CZ 320 continuous-zoom thermal chassis camera is designed as an open-frame chassis camera for integrators in the industrial, security/surveillance, and military universe. The unit is powered by a custom processor that provides critical image-processing functions, with extensions for edge analytics. It can provide accurate night-time thermal images for objects more than a half-mile away.

THE FUTURE

It’s true that night-time surveillance has been almost exclusively the purview of law enforcement and private security. However, the market is expanding beyond loss prevention/risk management, as after dark video surveillance is increasingly being deployed for business optimization purposes in casinos, hotels and healthcare settings. Even in a darkened warehouse or motel, it’s important for management to keep track and make sure that things run smoothly.

The proliferation of these cameras is helped by their modest cost. Even as features and capabilities are on a steep upward climb, costs for the cameras are holding steady with the previous generation.

Future technology will continue to move towards network cameras with the same high degree of light sensitivity currently available, but with even better resolution, experts say. Improved light sensitivity and less image noise will be key features in any new imaging technology in the future. Even smarter software could eventually eliminate the need for IR illuminators at night except in the most extreme situations.

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