Tech Trends: Lights, Camera...Activity

Mainstream concerns over large integrated security networks are unfounded


Newark Airport got quite a bit of press in February for its deployment of 171 LED light fixtures that form the backbone of a new wireless network that would not only control lighting, but also transmit data from security devices. The fact that surveillance cameras and activity sensors were to be part of this network caused a great deal of consternation — which tells me how little-informed the mainstream media, not to mention the public in general, really is when it comes to the potential of security technology.

What was the ruckus all about? According to The New York Times, privacy advocates worry that these smart systems “raise the specter of technology racing ahead of the ability to harness it, running risks of invading privacy and mismanaging information.” Computerworld responded with a commentary that said: “Let's get real — the light fixtures and LEDs at Newark Airport are not about saving energy or having cool lights capable of 16 million colors; it’s about watching us, analyzing data about us and storing it for who knows how long.”

So, let’s get real — networked lighting, for the sake of lighting control, is a logical evolution of technology, providing useful features and energy savings, particularly when using LEDs. Video surveillance cameras are not new, nor is the movement towards more architecturally pleasing dome cameras. Activity sensors — whether hardware, or based in video analytics — are not new, either; and it’s the same thing for networked systems. So why all the buzz? Two reasons: packaging and big data.

The fact that security-related devices may be bundled or networked in a more efficient and less obtrusive fashion may make the security functions less obvious to the public. Aren’t people getting so used to security cameras that they have become less noticed and simply appear as part of the background? That’s the old privacy argument, but, as incidents like the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing have shown us, surveillance ultimately enhances safety.

The crux of the concern, I would argue, is the increasing ability to collect, store and analyze information about people — big data. This taps directly into the national privacy debate stimulated by Snowden’s revelations of NSA data collection. I’m not going there in this column, but suffice it to say that here’s where the discussion needs to be focused, not on the deployment of technology enhancements to products and capabilities already in use.

 

The Benefits of Integration

Let’s look at some of the ways in which networked lighting system, integrated with security devices, may provide value. The first is obvious - energy savings. LEDs are dimmable and controllable, and in tying their illumination to human activity, they can be made to function when truly needed.

Next, pleasing effects through the use of color or lighting patterns may add to the visual appeal of an environment. Proper visible or IR illumination might enhance the performance of video cameras, even with improvements in those cameras’ wide dynamic range (WDR). Analytics, working in conjunction with lighting, could be a part of certain decision rules, dictating how lights should function in specific situations, including strobing for deterrence or emergency notification.

Sensity (sensity.com), the company supplying the NetSense platform for the Newark installation, points to other potential applications, including asset tracking using RFID tags communicating with a fixture to provide real-time location service (RTLS); retail analytics, which include tying to customers smartphones, to provide better customer information and service; parking management; and surveillance. Outdoor applications will include intelligent street lighting, integrated with security sensor and surveillance technology.

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