Are plant surveillance technologies compromising your privacy?

April 2, 2008
Sheila Kennedy reports on how today's camera systems do more than snap pictures or videos.

Integrated vision systems play a legitimate role in plant maintenance, security and personnel safety, although some new surveillance technologies raise privacy concerns.

Maintenance inspections: Inspecting remote and hard-to-reach places is easier with a camera system. ULC Robotics develops pipeline video inspection equipment for gas, water, sewer and electric applications. For instance, its PRX250 Gas Camera enables internal inspection of live gas mains to locate sources of water infiltration or leaks. It combines a high-resolution color camera, ultra-bright LEDs for illumination and a motorized, operator-controlled variable-speed feeder with a self-centering device. The camera operates in forward and reverse, and the image is displayed on a monitor for visual inspection and analysis.

For sewer pipes, RapidView’s IBAK PANORAMO 3D optoscanner integrates two digital photo cameras with 186° wide-angle lenses into the front and rear of the housing. It produces hemispherical images that, when put together, form 360° spherical images. The scanner can travel through pipes at 70 ft. per minute in forward or reverse, and transmits real-time digital data to an operator for analysis. The operator can stop, turn and zoom the scanner to assess the pipe’s inner surface and perform computer-aided measurement of the position and size of objects or defects. The data can be stored on DVDs or other storage media and can be shared with other information systems.

Plant security and safety: Surveillance cameras can be positioned to monitor critical equipment and their gauges, gates, parking lots, delivery and receiving terminals and other sensitive areas. Cameras deter employees and visitors from tampering, theft and unsafe behaviors, and allow extra eyes to watch for suspicious activity and accelerate calls for assistance or emergency procedures should an employee become hurt or incapacitated.

Industrial Video and Control (IVC) is a manufacturer of Internet-based video devices for industrial and other applications, including hazardous, harsh, dusty or otherwise difficult environments. IVC camera systems combine camera-management software with a range of Internet protocol (IP) cameras that can be viewed and controlled by authorized users from any networked PC or client device. The video can be accessed via LAN, WAN, VPN or the Internet, and a new line of cameras announced in 2007 is designed for use with cellular network infrastructures.

IVC View Station software features customizable screen layouts, simultaneous viewing of multiple cameras, programmed tours of preset views and automated multistep alarm responses. The company’s standards-based software integrates with third-party technologies such as process control software and access control systems.

When bandwidth is a concern, IVC systems can be configured to send images only when requested or when an event occurs. For example, with integrated motion detection, the camera can point to the position where an alarm occurs, save the recorded video locally on the camera and transmit a single image through the IVC Relay Server to the operator monitoring the location. The operator can then request additional images or view the stored video as needed.

Video surveillance gone wild: Talking and listening cameras have raised the ire of privacy advocates. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras integrated with a loudspeaker allow operators from a control room to speak to the people who are being monitored. Certain towns in England are using talking CCTV systems from Bosch Security Systems to stop littering, disperse congregating gangs and interrupt other illegal or antisocial activity. Plant applications might include stopping unsafe practices witnessed on camera, announcing threats or problems seen in the vicinity, or comforting personnel in distress before first responders arrive.

Listening CCTV devices are also emerging. Safety Dynamics surveillance systems deployed in certain high-crime areas of Chicago and Los Angeles have microphones that recognize the sound of gunshots, triangulate the source and turn the camera on the shooter. In an industrial environment, this concept might have a place in perimeter security or remote facilities to triangulate gunshots or explosions.

Taking the idea further, U.K.-based Safe School Technologies (SST) developed ImpartialView, a CCTV camera and listening device that sees, hears and archives school incidents to deter wrongdoers and preserve both sides of a story should an incident or allegation occur. The potential for industrial applications of this approach to surveillance is debatable. As with any video or audio recording device, privacy is a concern, and associated laws and regulations must be taken into account.

E-mail Contributing Editor Sheila Kennedy, managing director of Additive Communications, at [email protected].

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