One of the hottest trends in security technology today is wireless mesh networking. As more and larger entities-like cities and university campuses-move to mesh networks, the price of mesh technology should drop and its popularity continue to grow. It's become more reliable, can communicate over a large geographic area and equates to a low total cost of ownership.
While he prefaced his comments by stating that mesh networking is not for every application, Tom Furlong, operations manager at Guardian Alarm Company, Southfield, Mich., sees places where the mesh typology will nearly pay for itself.
For instance, Guardian monitors a railroad yard that is more than one mile long. Their wireless mesh network of megapixel cameras monitors the track for the entire length of the rail yard, bringing video back to a central station.
"Running fiber from pole to pole that distance would be cost-prohibitive," Furlong said. "In certain applications, mesh is much more cost-effective than a wired infrastructure. You will chew up a lot of time and money putting in a hardwired network."
Defining mesh for integrators
Mesh networks are self-healing, self-forming, fault-tolerant, multi-path communications systems. "Mesh networks have achieved full recognition of the unique characteristics that mesh provides," said Michael Sherman, CEO/president and general manager, AES Corp., Peabody, Mass., manufacturer of the AES-IntelliNet product line.
He said functionality and reliability are the only characteristics that matter. "The private sector has reviewed all the available technologies to use for their critical systems and have selected mesh as their go-to solution," he said. He noted that alarm signal communications require networks to transmit and receive a signal of immense importance in the shortest time possible.
Furlong agreed that the reliability of the signal is one of the key benefits to a mesh network. Another of Guardian's mesh networks is a video monitoring system on a 40-acre retail complex. Anchored by one large store, it has five out-lot buildings and restaurants. They are charged with providing video feeds from every corner of the lot. But what happens if a shopper knocks into a light pole and takes out the camera position?
"One advantage mesh has over fiber is that, if there is a cut in the fiber it is not immediately healable," Furlong said. "If someone hits a pole with a mesh system, it does not affect the whole system. The network finds another way to re-route the signals and the network continues to function."
"You want to look at how many redundant potential ways the communication system can deliver the message. You also look at the fault tolerance of the communication system. A typical mesh network can have hundreds of unique paths to route an alarm signal to the central receiver," Sherman explained. "Could you imagine doing this with phone lines, public cell phone service or any other form of wired or wireless communications?"
Unlike their railroad yard application, the retail installation is part of an integrated solution for the site, said Furlong. The shopping center integrates gate access and physical security and is served by an on-site guard.
"Once you establish a mesh network, we can put a wireless transmitter anywhere within the network and expect it to work," Furlong said.
Some of the security wireless networks deployed by AES cover an area of 30,000 square miles. "This is an asset that has greater functionality above alarm monitoring," Sherman said. His company realized this some time ago and has added metering, vehicle tracking and machine to machine communications to the functionality of its mesh networks. These networks, he added, monitor fire and burglar alarms, track armored trucks and monitor the HVAC of the protected building while reading the utility meters simultaneously.
Furlong said expanding a mesh network is easy. As they put in hardwired nodes, they establish a virtual private network (VPN). "That allows us to go beyond the 'edges' where we currently reside," he said.
Making it happen