Celebrating 10 years of onboard network cameras

Since the world’s first network camera was launched back in  1996, the technology has developed enormously and now has a variety of uses in an ever-growing number of sectors. One area – which was initially reluctant to invest but has since made up a lot of ground – is transportation.

Network cameras were first installed on vehicles 10 years ago and, over the past decade, they’ve 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 people counting to facial recognition; from security to improving driver behavior.

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 be 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.

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 was their inability to compress video. When combined with a lack of available onboard storage, this led to footage being quickly deleted in order to create space for the new images. This, obviously, limited 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.

The best of these smart codecs works by compressing only the unimportant details of a scene, such as stationary backgrounds, whilst retaining the details of everything else that is deemed important, for example people and moving vehicles. The result of utilizing such smart codecs means that the limited storage space on trains and buses would only be filled with the information that matters. Scenes such as empty carriages will take up almost zero storage space, while scenes with passengers and vehicles will take up minimum storage with maximum details of the objects of interest.

Adding audio to video

Onboard cameras featuring connected audio add extra value to public transport companies. Adding audio enhances a camera’s utility, as it can take both a visual and audio record of any incident. Take, for instance, a bus during rush hour where tempers can fray. Although a visual camera would be able to see that two people are arguing, it would not be able to determine what is being said. With connected audio and clever positioning of external microphones, not only can any dispute be seen but it can be heard. This is a very useful tool in forensic investigation after an event.

The value of analytics

As the performance of onboard cameras has 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 particular 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.

Security features don’t stop there. Many times, after criminals have committed a crime, to avoid being caught they try to blend into crowds and escape via public transportation. Onboard cameras, on trains or buses, can be embedded with facial recognition software that would allow authorities to identify and arrest criminals before they flee too far.

Safety for passengers and drivers

Sadly, from time to time, drivers make mistakes with sometimes devastating consequences. In order to improve safety on public transport, onboard cameras with embedded applications that monitor driver behaviour have become the norm.

Mobile surveillance systems that are coupled with accelerometers can be set up to 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 behaviour 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 in today’s society, 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 manoeuvre 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

From starting out as simple video-capturing devices, 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 captures 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 or recognize suspicious persons.

We are at an exciting time in mobile surveillance. Current and future onboard cameras can be integrated with sophisticated technologies that take them far beyond their use in a security capacity, helping to provide data that improves both operational efficiency and customer experience. Already, we are seeing demand from train companies who want to utilize onboard video systems to automatically let commuters know where the emptiest carriages are before they get on a train.

As mobile 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 of 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.

With technology moving so quickly, it’s hard to predict all the functions that onboard network cameras will offer over the next 10 years. But, given progress over the last decade and growing demand, they are sure to form a key part of our connected future.

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