What's New in Electronic Access Control

Electronic access control is a vast field of product options, levels of security and potential solutions. Controlling access electronically can be as simple as managing a single door or as complex as managing thousands of doors across many locations. Each of these applications can be accomplished with multiple solutions. This is also true for all the possible applications that exist between these two extremes.

Because of all the possible options, there are many levels of complexity in each given access control application. For this reason, a discussion of new electronic access control solutions becomes difficult to quantify in a single article. I will look at various solutions in more of a generic way vs. specific products and manufacturers. The focus is technology and approaches instead of the hardware and/or software of a given company’s product line.

Single-Door Solutions

Common technologies deployed in a single-door application include a magnetic lock, door strike, door sensor or door position switch, keypad, card reader or combination technology hardware.

Magnetic Locks: Although magnetic locks are not used as widely as they have been in the past, they have improved in several ways, such as, adding monitoring capability, holding strength and anti-tampering functionality. Today’s magnetic locks are smaller in size, use less power and have enhanced aesthetics. Sensors are available within the magnetic lock to indicate proper bonding of the armature plate, an attempt to force the door open for a preset period of time and measure current draw to report improper bonding. Even a camera can be part of the magnetic lock.

Electronic Door Strikes: An alternative to magnetic locks, electronic door strikes are becoming more readily available with multiple voltages (AC and DC) in a single electric strike. This eliminates multiple model numbers and different electric strike models being required to fit a given application. The electronic door strikes are also becoming more universal, requiring less modification to the door for installation. They are available with sensors to verify proper latching of the door lock itself. All these functional improvements provide a better, simpler and easier installation process, which saves time and cost.

Door sensors have evolved to become more varied in size, wiring and types. The standard glass-encapsulated door reed relay type of sensor is available in many lead/connector configurations, mounting options and number of contacts housed in a plastic enclosure. The size, especially of surface mounted sensors, has been reduced and the aesthetics have been improved.
Today’s newest door sensors incorporate a magnetic ball or multiple magnets to minimize failure. Some of these newer door sensor technologies are available for medium- and low-security applications in metal housings, as there have always been balanced magnetic door sensors for high-security applications that are in metal housings and use multiple magnet configurations. High-security door sensors are fairly expensive and are therefore limited to applications such as, government facilities; however, even high-security door sensors have evolved. High-security balanced magnetic door sensors can incorporate a relay that can be activated to test the door sensor without having to manually open a door.

Keypads are available in many aesthetically pleasing configurations from standard keypads, capacitance/piezo keypads and capacitive touch screen keypads. These devices provide additional “built in” intelligence than was available in earlier models. Today, touch screen keypads are available in a narrow mullion mount instead of the older four square box mountings.
Capacitance touch screen keypads have the ability to display a wide variety of information on the screen, including weather, stock updates, graphics, video or other information. It can provide personalized information for a specific user, when an individualized card or PIN is used. Microphones and speakers can be added to allow messages to be recorded and played back — a capability valuable in certain security situations. These screen keypads can also incorporate a proximity or smart card reader.

Biometric electronic access devices have become much more affordable and use enhanced technologies, producing more reliable and faster recognition. These devices can be a standalone technology such as thumbprint device or provide verification technology for a combination of biometric and secondary control technologies. The combination hardware might be a thumbprint biometric device incorporated with an electronic keypad, for example. Part of the newer biometric technologies includes various video recognition systems used to provide the door release function. The door release device has never been more varied and aesthetically packaged.

Cards & Readers: Smart cards are on the cutting edge of card and reader technologies. Smart card technology provides a contact or contactless interface with good security, encryption and added memory storage to enable more than just a credential number to be stored on the card, and recent sales in electronic access control technology are moving quickly toward the contactless smart card.

The card reader can be part of a device that incorporates other technologies, or stand alone. A card reader, at a door, must have the valid card credential numbers loaded in some fashion to grant or deny access. Since card-based electronic access control requires data to be input, it has in the past primarily been handled via a hand held unit/computer or via some type of network with a centralized server.

Today, many smart card reader applications need only an IP network or a wireless network to provide this database information. The network sends and receives data from the card reader interface that connects to the reader at the door. This network would connect to multiple card reader interfaces and thus form a larger system.

Access Control on a Larger Scale

The recent developments in large-scale electronic access control systems incorporate many of the items discussed, because the hardware at the door could be identical, but with connections to a centralized database. Connecting the door release devices together, and, in turn, to a central database, is today being accomplished with more wireless and IP solutions.
A wireless network, for example, is available and incorporated into the door release unit in the 900MHZ range with and without spread spectrum. Wireless lends itself to areas that are isolated — either within a facility, because of parking lots blocking access between buildings, or across large geographical areas. Wireless also enables quick deployment of security access control for temporary applications. The wireless and IP network can be part of a company’s existing communications network, thus providing an easy cost effective installation.

Many manufacturers are producing a reader or reader interface that connects directly to the IP network and uses Power over Ethernet (PoE).

Alternatively, there are electronic access control systems that incorporate Internet browsers and use network application software to connect and communicate with electronic access control at the door. The database can be located anywhere, and the door electronic access control can be at virtually any location and be remotely updated. A simple Web browser is used to connect to a given door electronic access control unit to interrogate, update and check operations at the door. This approach uses and to some extent, incorporates standardized IP architecture and software — thus providing a more generic and open architecture approach.

This configuration is very familiar to your IT Department, and using it enables IT to better work with the Security department to install an electronic access control system.


The outsourcing trend generally applies to large-scale electronic access control systems, which contract an outside source for the administration of the database and/or its associated server. With cost pressures, organizations are looking for third-party involvement to reduce overhead costs, and this involvement can include supplying the server, administrating the database, and/or maintaining the server/central computer.

Today, any combination of hardware rental and services is possible and being offered. Using a third party to supply this service could benefit the end-user in reducing cost while still maintaining control of security at its facilities. For example, the third party’s server could be accessed by an end-user to input authorized badges for specific doors in their facility. This approach minimizes cost and the needed expertise to operate a centralized electronic access control system. ?

Robert Pearson holds a BSEE and is a Registered Professional Engineer. He has been an instructor at George Washington University, teaching “Integrated Security Systems” and “Corporate Security Management.” He has written numerous articles for various technical magazines and has recently published a book, “Electronic Security Systems.” On a day-to-day basis he oversees design, project management, and maintenance of security systems for multiple sites. He is a member of A/E National Standing Council for ASIS International.