Video surveillance on the fly

NASA meshes cameras with wireless network to help secure new facility

When NASA signed a 20-year lease in September on an unused hangar in Palmdale, Calif., to house two specialized research aircraft, the man charged with protecting those planes faced a serious challenge.

The planes, the Boeing 747 Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy and DC-8 Airborne Laboratory, are operated by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, which is a tenant at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. But there was not enough room for the new project on the base, so 'we're leasing a hangar from the Los Angeles airport authority,' said William Crews, Dryden's chief of security.

With five acres under one roof, the hangar has a colorful past. It originally was a Rockwell International production facility for the B1 Bomber.

Since the production line was shut down, it has been rented to moviemakers, most recently for the latest 'Pirates of the Caribbean' installment. Despite its high-profile history, the Palmdale hangar had sparse security features. There was only minimal perimeter fencing and no access control, intrusion-prevention, video surveillance or public-alert system.

'It wasn't to the level that NASA required to protect such one-of-a-kind national assets,' Crews said.

To strengthen security, NASA has been planning a substantial investment in an IP video surveillance and access control system at Palmdale, and Crews said he is still going down that path. But NASA handed him a more immediate problem. 'The schedule for moving in the two aircraft was 'moved to the left' on their timeline. That accelerated my timeline.'

Crews had just 60 days before arrival of the multimillion-dollar, one-of-a-kind aircraft ' not nearly enough time to deploy the permanent system. 'The problem was how to put some sort of security in place so at a minimum to have a defensible perimeter,' he said.

The obvious answer was boots and guns, but security employees are expensive. He settled on a force multiplier in the form of a tactical video surveillance system from AgileMesh using a wireless mesh network from Firetide.

Fast setup

Crews first saw AgileMesh's Camera Deployment Unit at a trade show last summer. 'It looked like something that could be rapidly deployed and easily configured,' he said. That was what he needed: Something security employees could set up without the help of engineers.

The Camera Deployment Unit is intended for small, tactical deployments ' such as police investigations, VIP protection and incident responses ' or special events such as the Super Bowl.

'You wouldn't buy our system for a permanent video surveillance solution,' said Joseph Stefan, chief executive officer at AgileMesh. 'NASA needed video surveillance quickly. They didn't have time to install a permanent solution.'

The model that Crews selected is a tripod-mounted unit with two dome cameras that have full pan, tilt and zoom capability.

They include internal power packs that provide six to seven hours of operation and accept external AC or DC power sources.

Each also includes a Firetide HotPort wireless mesh node for linking the units to one another and a central control site or backhaul connection.

'Firetide makes a high-performance proprietary wireless networking product,' Stefan said. 'Their product is really the core of our product.'

AgileMesh uses the proprietary wireless system rather than standards-based Wi-Fi or WiMax radios, Stefan said, because 'we found we could get better and faster video throughput with the Firetide radios and mesh protocols.'

In a mesh network, each node communicates with other nodes in its vicinity to route traffic to the destination so the network grows and adds routes as more devices are added. Because they create their own infrastructure, they can be deployed easily in locations with little or no existing infrastructure.

Made for video

The Firetide system was developed with the video market in mind, said company CEO Bo Larsson.

The 1.5 millisecond latency provides good video quality, and the dual radios in each node can be configured to provide a maximum of 70 megabits/sec throughput.

The radios broadcast at 400 milliwatts ' compared with about 30 milliwatts for the average laptop PC wireless connection ' and at extreme ranges can provide 10 megabits/sec over 20 miles.

The radios operate in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands in addition to the licensed 4.9 GHz public safety band. They use Wired Equivalent Privacy and Wi-Fi Protected Access encryption between nodes with 128- or 256-bit Advanced Encryption Standard encryption end-to-end. All Layer 3 IP data is encapsulated and accessible only by the HotPort nodes.

The encapsulation is used for flow-based routing, which puts a destination header on each packet to speed the traffic. 'The intermediate nodes don't need to open the packet' to route it, Larsson said. 'We had to optimize the performance of the mesh to do video.'

Although the core network uses Firetide's protocols, it supports Ethernet and Wi-Fi, and the company has a suite of Wi-Fi access points and other products for working with the mesh core.

For mobile Wi-Fi applications, a mobility controller allows communication at 90 mph with 24 milliseconds latency and no packet loss.

Larsson said the system is installed at some NASCAR tracks where data is gathered from cars going as fast as 180 mph.

But the NASA Palmdale implementation does not require mobility, long distances or connections with outside networks.

In October and November, Crews deployed four units with eight cameras around the perimeter of the hangar area. They link to an operations center in a trailer, where the video is monitored in real time. The system has 300G of memory to store the feeds for 30 days.

There is no backhaul, and the units and operations trailer constitute a system so self-contained that it is off the power grid.

'I wanted to be isolated from all infrastructure, and I looked for a solar solution' for power, Crews said.

Although the battery packs will power each unit for as long as seven hours, he installed solar charging units to provide around-the-clock operation. 'I didn't need a long extension cord for anything.'

That's one of the advantages of working in the desert.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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