Going Mobile with Video Surveillance on Chicago's Bus System

From on-board cameras to hotspots and even to police responders -- how IBM and the CTA are solving the problem of localized video


As surveillance video has grown increasingly popular, it's popped up in more and more everyday places. It watches the cashier in fast-food restaurants. It captures identities of customers at convenience stores. It watches from the corners of downtown office buildings. It pans, tilts and zooms from dome cameras mounted on lampposts in urban districts.

It's even been found to some extent on transit system buses, though a mobile bus system has always presented a unique challenge. First, only today's newer buses have cameras built in (like the one's Bombardier is providing to Toronto's transit system -- see story); the others require time-consuming retrofits. Secondly, bus systems need to be "hardened" type systems to deal with the rough city streets, so not just any mounting system and DVR will do. And finally, the problem has always been that the video resides on the bus, making it a time-consuming and sometimes labor intensive task to take video off the bus. It's complicated by the fact that buses are designed to spend their time on the streets, delivering passengers, rather than back at a bus depot, downloading video via a network cable.

That's the situation that Christine Beaudin, principal of network services for IBM, found when IBM landed a $2.4 million project with the Chicago Transit Authority. IBM was selected to be the networked services and security integrator for the beginning of a massive mobile bus security project that would eventually place cameras on all of the city's buses. But it wasn't just a job of wiring up cameras to DVRs -- that was already done. Chicago's Transit Authority wanted the video to be useful; it wasn't good enough for the video to simply sit on the bus as an archive of the incident. The CTA and Chicago's police representatives wanted to be able to access the video in real-time if an incident was occurring.

It patterned well with what Chicago and Illinois' Cook County area was already doing in high-crime areas with its "eyes in the sky" street cameras and gunshot detectors that fed to a police monitoring station. The problem, of course, was how to make that video accessible.

That's where IBM network services crew stepped in, headed up by Beaudin and her team.

"Essentially what the CTA is trying to do is to build a broadband system across the city in order to be able to provide video surveillance on all the buses," explains Beaudin. "They currently have over 600 cameras across the bus and rail systems, and 400 cameras in the bus system itself. Right now the video is local to the bus itself, and what they wanted to do was provide connectivity back to the main central office so they could be more proactive and be able to work closely with the Chicago Police Department, so if there is an incident, they can react more quickly."

Fortunately for IBM, the new buses coming online with the CTA were being delivered with cameras, and some of the old buses had been retrofitted. Most of the buses have between four and six cameras, so there was no shortage of available video, whether that was looking forward at what the driver sees, or looking back into the bus where the passengers were seated. Many of the cameras are capturing 30 frames per second, but according to Beaudin the system is designed such that the recorder on the bus may capture 30 fps on all the cameras, but due to bandwidth limitations, they may only push 10 fps over the wireless network.

Thus, IBM's part of the project was to build out a broadband 4.9 Ghz and 2.4 GHz wireless infrastructure so the CTA could connect with the surveillance video it already had. According to Beaudin, their task was to add wireless nodes to the buses and to initial fixed-installation sites, such as a bus terminal.

Then, says Beaudin, with the buses wired up for cameras, recorders and wireless nodes to transmit video, the Chicago Police vehicles were also set up with mobile access routers from Cisco and Panasonic's Toughbook computers so they could connect to a bus if they are in the vicinity.

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