Safe Harbors -Ports Take Approach to Automated Surveillance

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

By Mary Kalou

As primary commerce hubs, ports are obvious targets for crime and terrorism. One of the primary tools that port security directors have relied on for security is video surveillance. The approach of recording video, reviewing the tape for improprieties apprehending the offender has worked somewhat for run-of-the-mill criminal activity. With today's threat from terrorism, however, this approach is no longer acceptable.

The latest trend in port security focuses on implementing an enterprise approach in which all of port's sensor technologies including video, chemical, fire and others are linked together through information technology into a single, smart command center. Spurred by new technology advances - combining an open architecture IT infrastructure, IP networks and software analytics - multi-sensor surveillance is a powerful tool for prevention, not reaction. Ports are comprised of wide areas with large amounts of legitimate traffic. The areas monitored may include both commercial and recreational traffic in the port as well as landside activities at docks, warehouses and even adjacent industrial and chemical plants. There are typically links to intermodal transport, such as rail lines. One of the drawbacks of traditional video surveillance at ports is that dedicating staff to monitor such a large, can be both ineffective and expensive. Pre-9/11, that's typically why most ports relied on video for only capturing a forensic record of events. Armed with new software-based solutions and standard off the shelf cameras, ports on the leading edge are now implementing "automated wide area surveillance." The general characteristics of an automated wide area surveillance system include automated object detection, tracking and classification, an overhead view of all activities at the port and the ability to centralize policy management for multiple areas within that environment, both land and sea.

Automated Detection

Studies indicate that humans just aren't very effective at monitoring video; getting distracted and missing important activity. Since the beginning of the IT industry, software has been used to automate repetitive tasks. By applying algorithms to continuously analyze streaming video data, software can be effective at detecting objects, comparing them to a known database and then classifying them as vessel, car, person or even animal. The algorithms are currently refined to the point that they can subcategorize objects, such as whether it is a tanker, sailboat or personal watercraft. Unlike simple motion detection, software can also filter out noise from camera streams. This reduces false alarms from waves crashing on a beach, buoys floating in the harbor or birds passing through a camera's view.

Wide Area Surveillance

Rather than viewing each camera feed independently, automated wide area surveillance systems report a 3-D image of an entire secured area on a single display. Icons representing real time activity detected by multiple cameras populate the display. At any time, or automatically when a significant event occurs, live video can be streamed to the display, with objects tracked camera to camera as they move through the environment.

Automated object detection coupled with this 3-D approach provides complete situational awareness.

Some "intelligent" video surveillance systems provide only still images of an event. This approach also lacks the context that the 3-D overview of the environment provides to that video image. Security directors aren't just interested in events in a single camera view - they want to know exactly what is occurring, where it is occurring and how it relates within the entire environment.

Enforce Port Policy

In addition to situational awareness, wide area surveillance systems enable the security director to implement and enforce policy for any specific area within the port. In a large environment comprised of hundreds of cameras, security guards must make instant decisions: what is this object, does its activity constitute a policy violation, and how do I respond? Assuming that the security guard is even watching the monitor when the event occurs, you must also assume that they will judge the situation accurately and then act according to port policy.

By applying software analytics to unstructured video data, policies can be defined in real world terms. Typically this is done with a point and click interface, in which security managers can draw virtual barriers on the screen and then apply rules to those areas. For example, a port's policy might dictate that while LNG ships are in port, no watercraft are permitted within 100 yards of the ships. On land, a policy might be that no people or vehicles are permitted on the loading dock weekdays between 7 pm and 5 am. In the event that one of these rules is violated, policy dictates that live video of the event be streamed to the command center and an audible alarm is issued. If the event escalates, then live video of the event, together with the exact coordinates, can be streamed to security personnel in the field equipped with web-enabled PDAs. With remote access, the chief security officer can even be alerted on his home PC.

Software-based detection enables the security director to centralize security policy and automate the decision process. Taking monitoring and policy decisions out of the hands of entry level security personnel enables the security director to more effectively deploy resources in order to respond to events - before they escalate into full blown incidents. This proactive approach is a key benefit of wide area surveillance systems and a major driver of its adoption at leading edge ports.

Open Platform Approach

When implementing automated wide area surveillance it is also important to remember that video is only a component in an overall security strategy. Most ports use a variety of sensors, including access control, chemical, radar, GPS and RFID. That's why it's critical to implement technologies based on an open platform utilizing industry standard software and hardware. For example, GPS transponders on vessels or RFID tagged employees can be identified as "friendlies" within the policy engine, enabling specific policies to be setup so that they don't trip false alarms. When an access control sensor is compromised, the software can stream live video to the command center, sound an audible alert and focus a pan-tilt-zoom camera on the area for closer inspection. Today's smart command center is a network of interdependent security sensors tied together by software, which provides the intelligent user interface and a centralized policy engine for automation.

The Cost of Effective Security

In a perfect world, the cost of security is the least important consideration. However, even with the recent round of grants, cost is a factor that must be considered. What many ports are finding is that the cost of implementing systems is more than offset by the cost savings in manpower. Studies indicate that it takes one full time employee to effectively monitor every six cameras in a command center. Filling each seat 24 hours a day, 365 days a year requires an average of six full-time employees. For a port with 50 cameras, that means an estimated $2 million a year is spent on employees for monitoring.

This cost means that it is particularly important for ports to take advantage of automated wide area surveillance, because grants cover security upgrades and not the ongoing funding required for guards to monitor video surveillance. With this in mind, most ports recoup their investment in automated wide area surveillance within a year. On its own, software will never replace guards. What it does do is make fewer guards much more effective at their jobs, by providing them with the actionable intelligence they need to prevent incidents from ever happening. That's a small price and one that ports serious about security are willing to pay.

Mary Kalou is Director of Transportation Systems at VistaScape Security Systems. She has over 10 years experience in the security industry. She is an active member of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA). She can be reached at

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