The development of onboard cameras in transportation

Over the past decade, network cameras have become an essential part of transportation safety and security. Thanks to the technologies that can now be integrated onto onboard network cameras, the range of solutions they can be a part of has also increased: from boosting security inside vehicles to enhancing safety in passenger boarding and alighting, from improving driver behavior to reducing track maintenance costs. The advancements within onboard network cameras mean video surveillance can now be integrated effectively into public transport, as found in a recent report released by Union Internationale des Transports Publics (UITP) and Axis regarding trends in video surveillance within public transport.

Evolution of onboard camera technology

One of the key considerations when developing onboard cameras is the lifespan of the vehicles they are being built for. Train carriages are often used for up to 40 years, whereas cameras should be replaced every 7-8 years. It is important, therefore, that the cameras can easily be replaced. To achieve this, manufacturers can ensure that newer cameras have the same form and fit, so that even as technology evolves it is possible to seamlessly retrofit older train carriage interiors.

Onboard cameras had a wide range of challenges to overcome before their utility could be compared to that of their static counterparts, and as such have incorporated some cutting-edge technology. Over the years, the robustness and reliability of their mechanical components have been improved, as have their imaging capabilities. New features have been added that combat challenging light conditions, restricted onboard storage and their ability to transmit data; not to mention additional features demanded by those looking to improve customer experience.

As found in the UITP report, digitalization of the transportation industry has allowed devices to remain connected and thus increases the safety and security of public transport. It also revealed that, compared to 2015, the number of public transport networks with only analog cameras have decreased considerably (from 25% to 18%) as upgrades and new installations are increasingly digital. The shift towards digital video surveillance systems becomes obvious with 82% of transport businesses having a digital component to their systems.

The challenges of light (and dark)

Clearly, moving vehicles are in a constantly changing environment: from bright sunlight to a pitch-dark tunnel or poor weather. Even in human beings, when going from a very dark place to a very bright place, or vice-versa, our eyes take a little while to adjust to the new lighting conditions. Cameras are affected in much the same way.

When a bus or a train comes out of a dark tunnel into bright sunshine, for example, there needs to be less delay in adjusting to the light changes while ensuring all the forensic details are clearly visible even in the dark parts of a scene – without over-exposing the bright parts. In order to specifically address these challenging scenes, onboard cameras need to be designed with advanced image processing technologies such as Wide Dynamic Range (WDR). There are many WDR solutions available on the market, but, as would be expected, some are better than others, with the lower-end solutions often creating visual anomalies within the image that can significantly reduce usability.

Another challenge specific to transportation is that long-distance transport companies, whether they operate buses or trains, will very often turn off the lights during overnight trips to make it easier for passengers to sleep. Whilst improving travellers’ onboard experience, this also creates a prime opportunity for criminal activity to take place.

In order to address this problem, onboard cameras must be able to see more than the eye can see; even in the dark. Today, advanced image processing technologies embedded in some cameras make it possible to depict and detect objects of interest using lifelike colors even in very low light conditions. Such forensic details are vital for legal prosecutions, deterring criminals and increase overall passenger security.

Capture more details with less storage space

A significant drawback to legacy analogue systems is their inability to compress video. When combined with a lack of available onboard storage, this leads to footage being quickly deleted in order to create space for the new images. This, obviously, limits the usefulness of the cameras. In order to address this issue, manufacturers looked at ways of compressing the images to save valuable storage. In order to achieve this goal without compromising the quality and usability of the footage, new smarter codecs were introduced. This has allowed a significant cut-down on storage space without damaging the overall quality of the video.

Furthermore, end-consumers have started understanding and appreciating the additional features embedded within network cameras. This has been seen in the form of acceptance shown by passengers towards the implementation of more network cameras across public transport. The recent report also confirmed an increase in acceptance, seen through the massive growth in the sharing of video, both internally and externally. The report found that respondents shared videos with an average of approx. 3 parties in 2015, while in 2018, the average rose to 3.4. Thus, it shows how passengers and transport operators have started to understand the value of high-quality video surveillance for a safer transport system.

The value of analytics

As the processing power in onboard cameras have been improved by technological advances, they have been integrated with more advanced software that represents a change in the utility of the camera. Onboard network cameras can now also integrate with analytics applications, allowing transportation companies to access valuable data about passenger numbers and use of public transport, optimizing services and staffing.

Such software has a wide range of applications in the transport sector, with demand for additional security functionality. In recent years, transport police have become concerned with unattended luggage and suspicious packages left on public transport. Cameras can be equipped with software that recognizes left luggage. As a result, police and other security services have extra help in detecting suspicious packages and can respond quicker.

To support the value of analytics, UITP revealed that, by 2018, all 17 analytics measured, such as intrusion and parameter breach, examined in the survey were being used across public transport, with some of the most popular ones approaching 50% or more usage among respondents: intrusive, perimeter breach and rail track access detection. Newer cameras adapt to rapid light changes faster and capture even more details at a fraction of the storage space than older technology. Combined with smart analytics, new applications can even detect suspicious baggage or recognize suspicious persons.

Safety for passengers and drivers

Sadly, from time to time, drivers make mistakes with sometimes devastating consequences. To combat this, mobile surveillance systems that couple with accelerometers can record every time hard braking is sensed. This could help determine whether the braking is due to bad driving or due to traffic congestion on the route. It also makes it much easier, in post-accident investigation, to identify the video of interest within the recorded timeline. Investigators can quickly determine whether the failures were caused by driver behavior or circumstances outside their control. Similarly, an onboard camera with connected audio could begin to record when the horn or a certain button is pressed, or even when raised voices are detected, helping to ensure that there is both video footage and audio recordings of an incident.

Regrettably, fraudulent insurance claims are widespread today, with people faking accidents for financial gain. Outer vehicle cameras can be used to determine the real culprit behind an accident and attribute liability beyond doubt. This would help save transport companies money, helping to protect against spurious claims.

An additional benefit to externally-facing cameras is as a useful driver aid. Even for the most experienced driver, buses can be hard to maneuver and even harder to see out of properly when reversing. Outer vehicle cameras with screens on dashboards could act as digital mirrors to help the driver have a much better view of where they are going, improving safety and, again, save money on vehicle maintenance and repair following minor accidents. This technology is also used to speed up the process of attaching train carriages to one another.

The road ahead for onboard cameras

Onboard cameras have become essential for safety and security in transport. Newer and more powerful cameras are quicker to adapt to rapid light changes and capture even more details at a fraction of the storage space than they once could. Combined with smart analytics, new applications can even detect suspicious baggage, recognize suspicious persons, and provide passenger occupancy information.

As onboard cameras connect with more and more devices over a network, their utility will increase dramatically. They will form some of the core components of tomorrow’s smart cities, operating with machine learning technology to provide a greatly improved service. Of course, with all these opportunities come responsibilities. Cybersecurity will become ever more important in tomorrow’s world, as vast networks of connected devices must be uniformly secured to protect citizen privacy and business data. As also supported by the findings from UITP, video surveillance will remain a cornerstone technology in public transport and a positive example of how overall the digitalization of the sector is bearing fruit.

Find out more about the latest surveillance technology in public transport:

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