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

"Those mobile access routers," says Beaudin, "shake hands to say, yes, you are allowed to see that video. And essentially what happens is that the police responder's vehicle becomes another node on the network."

Then, once they are connected to a bus, the responder can select which cameras they want to see. And while the network connectivity is off to a great start, the software for viewing the system is still in development, says Beaudin, who notes that her department has traditionally worked with an Insight or Genetec surveillance software package.

But the solution doesn't come without challenges, and it's not an instantaneous solution.

"It teaks a lot of time to deploy a wireless network," explains Beaudin. "It's not like a cellular phone. A lot of people think that once you put a router in a bus you can automatically connect and start receiving and sending data, but actually you have to have a connection outside of the bus to start sending video data back to the central office. And obviously, Chicago does not yet have the infrastructure -- the wireless "cloud" -- across the entire city. So until that happens, what the CTA has to do is that they have to go to a bus terminal where we have also installed another 4.9 Ghz radio and then they can communicate that video from the bus through the terminal connection and back to the central office.

"The eventual dream is that they're going to be able to communicate [video back to the central office] from anywhere in the city, but for the time being, they have to go from bus terminal to bus terminal."

Fortunately, the wireless hotspots are growing. As of late December, there were 39 bus connection hotspots, and Beaudin hoped that number could double soon. For some of the bus lines that means a wireless connection about every 10 minutes -- so while it's not an always-on connection like a cell phone, the infrastructure is being planned to eventually reach that goal. It's aided by the fact that there's a fiber optic system built alongside the rail system. That trunk will be a core backbone of the system, says Beaudin, when the network of wireless hotspots is fully built.

In the first phase of the hotspots connection that IBM is building, the buses will have to pause at those terminal to let the video download, but Beaudin says that in a later phase, IBM will connect all of the terminals and then create a wireless mesh among those hotspots so that the buses wouldn't have to pause to transfer video, but that the system would simply pick back up downloading at the next hotspots where it left off at the previous hotspot.

Of course, not all of the video will have to be downloaded on the wireless mesh. The camera and DVR system is designed to delineate between important video and unimportant video. For example, if the bus driver applies the brakes strongly, the system buffers back before that application of the brakes and records the video coming up to that and for a specified period of time after that. And if an incident is happening in the bus, the driver (who can have a view of the video as well) can select a panic button to mark the video as "of interest".

And while the implementation will take time -- the initial installation for this pilot project was finished in October 2006 and will stay in pilot mode for about four months -- it's a start of a model for a wireless system that could become applicable for not only all manners of transit system, but also applicable for mobile security forces. Eventually the system should cover the CTA's 2,100 buses, so it clearly is a full-scale, real-world test of how to make mobile surveillance work. And as the project expands to the Chicago rail transit system, it will have to solve even more unique connectivity challenges like getting individual train cars to work together like a single unit in a mesh framework.

But as Beaudin notes, the project, while driven by security and police, is not just about adding security technology and exploring new system design avenues.

"The biggest thing about this project is that they want their riders to feel safer, and that will help increase ridership."