Leaderboard Apex GMS

Mobile Surveillance Systems

Leveraging the Traditional for the Design of the Future

Originally Published in the October Issue of RTC Magazine

At the core of successful surveillance is the ability to collect data without detection. This can be problematic once those being observed become privy to the current, most innovative technologies used.  Thus, as this current era of innovation evolves, the difficulties involved in collecting, interpreting, and processing ever-increasing amounts of data, sometimes in intense mobile environments, places extreme pressure on mobile platform designers and engineers.  Current trends and future projections show that surveillance efforts continue to require greater consideration for systems technology in regards to size, weight and power (SWaP), as well as user experience, and high-security capabilities.  That said, as organizations like Border Patrol and other agencies that work to protect homeland security gear up for the inevitabilities of the future, the pressure to obtain surveillance technologies that overcome existing and forecasted roadblocks is now of an especially time sensitive importance.

Mobile Remote Video Surveillance System (MRVSS)

A unique difficulty presented during surveillance efforts, particularly in mobile atmospheres, involves the consistent exertion to guarantee seamless interoperability between multiple systems. As several, independent technologies are linked and utilized for detection and collection initiatives, the user must ensure that they all work in concert in order to avoid mission critical catastrophe.  After all, between numerous recording cameras, night vision functions, data storage, displays, sensors, and network communications, multiple points of failure exist.  If an integral component fails (e.g., a network line), the user could be left with several valueless heaps of heavy metal until the system is repaired, wasting time and aborting opportunities for critical data collection.

These challenges are exacerbated in mobile environments where vehicle operation and safety are as important as the mission itself.  Traditionally, cameras are attached to the exterior of the vehicle, absorbing data and showing the driver what to expect from the outside environment via inboard monitors, sometimes requiring a night vision device (NVD) for functionality. Because the driver of the vehicle must be able to navigate his expedition using a networked vision system, there is even greater pressure on the reliability of both the vehicle and computational accuracy. Until recently, even the most advanced technologies only offered vision systems with unsuitably high latency delays, inflicting depth-related motion sickness and a misaligned reality between what the driver sees and the actual location of the vehicle.

Part of what helps create a low latency vision system is the speed at which the computer’s network operates.  As all cameras must be connected to one another and able to communicate easily with a mainframe database, high-speed networking and data transfer capabilities are incredibly important for surveillance applications.

For greatest efficiency, the system should have the ability to capture video at a rate of 30 frames per second using up to 16 HD-PTZ, analog data cameras.  The system then converts the data to a GigE Vision format with lossless compression, streams the data over Gigabit Ethernet from each camera to a router/switch and then sends it to the server via 10Gigabit Ethernet, at speeds that ensure that no information is lost. The captured video is then displayed, in broadcast mode, on any of the interior smart display monitors via Gigabit Ethernet or 10Gigabit Ethernet.  The video is stored on a storage subsystem, all in real time without losing any frames or enduring latencies of more than 1 frame. That would be a very long process for a computer that isn’t “up to speed,” especially considering that the network is also tasked to shift between additional sensors and other communication and computational systems throughout the vehicle.

Whether collecting data for analysis, for judicial processes or other critical applications, ensured data security rests with the recording device being used to store that information.  As quickly as cameras and other sensors are able to collect information, a device must be used to safely accumulate and store the uncompressed data for future analysis. This requires incredibly adept recording capabilities.  Should the device incur a hiccup during the recording process, the potential for data corruption increases. This threat simultaneously increases the significance of reliable high security recording devices, making the choice of what system to use a difficult and calculated one. Storage devices configured with security mechanisms, such as AES encryption, secure erase and write protect are ideal during surveillance operations because they establish protection in any environment.

Preferably, every aspect of the operation should have some sort of embedded precautionary failsafe, as unanticipated circumstances are more than likely to arise. In the event of an unexpected power outage, for example, it is necessary for the vehicle to include a component that allows the internal systems to undergo a self-sustaining, orderly shutdown. This is particularly vital during surveillance efforts as an uncontrolled shutdown can result in severe loss of acquired data. This specialized device can come in the form of an auxiliary power unit or uninterruptible power supply.

Ranging from commercial SUVs to military ground transport, a clear challenge for system designers is presented through the very limited amount of space available in surveillance vehicles. Until recently, the standard computing technologies used in these vehicles were VPX and older backplane platforms that are characteristically bulky and require a considerable amount of energy. To conceptualize the breadth of space and power consumed by these platforms from a commercial perspective, imagine an F150 with a 1U server and processing from Dell, a 1U managed switch from Cisco, a 2U storage with NAS capabilities, and a 1U auxiliary power unit.  That’s a full 5U rack-mount application requiring well over 5,000 watts and 12-15 times the necessary volume when compared with stand-alone systems.  The consequences of this type of arrangement result in heavy, large, hot computing engines that utilize an exceptional amount of space and necessitate an effective method for heat removal.

5U vs. Tarantula SO302-4in1 size comparison

Ideally, a fully integrated, independent system that includes secure storage capabilities, intelligent I/O, monitor support for a vision application, and ultra-fast networking to tie it all together is the best solution for a highly functional, mobile platform.  In order to reduce the threat of multiple points of failure between interconnects, adhere to SWaP constraints, and ensure data security, mobile platform designers have been tasked with creating this all-inclusive solution.

Upon conceptualizing a stand-alone system to provide a solution for these mission requirements, it was realized that an increasing amount of additional components needed to be included.  Cameras, communication, radios, displays, possible weaponry, positioning systems, sensors, hydraulic systems are all necessary for proper surveillance techniques, but fitting them all nicely into a commercial sized vehicle is a daunting task.  However, by adding multiple virtualized workstations that enable sophisticated processing, and multi-channel intelligent I/O, the various independent technologies on the vehicle can be supported while saving space and power.  A large selection of highly flexible I/O that can sustain multiple internal monitors in order to match the performance of the computational communication equipment is also essential.

An example of one such integrated system is General Micro Systems’ SO302-4in1 (Tarantula).  The backbone of this small form factor computer is an Intel® Xeon® Ivy Bridge-EP CPU with 10 cores (2.4 GHz each) driving six independent virtual machines, and controlling up to 18 Gigabit Ethernet ports and a second 10Gigabit Ethernet port.  It also contains up to eight 2-Tbyte SATA SSD drives (16-Tbyte total) in one canister with RAID capabilities and an internal APU in another canister.  The APU is comprised of an array of super capacitors that provide power per MIL-STD-704 blackout requirements.

SO302-4in1 Functional Diagram

One of the more severe environments that such a system can be employed is the U.S. Army’s MRAP Night Vision Program.  The fortified MRAP vehicles used in the program are built to rove rural, mountainous, and dangerous environments with one intent being stealthy surveillance and detection.  As urgency prevails, MRAPs must often use night vision devices to navigate hazardous areas in the dark.  This requires several cameras attached to the outside of the vehicle that send signals to the displays inside. Accurate estimations of ground topography are critical in these situations, as the amount of delay in communication between the cameras and the displays could mean life or death.

Hence, the Army’s choice to use the Tarantula, a system that supports GigE Vision protocol to provide a low-latency of ½ to 1 frame for its vision application.  In other words, from the time it takes for the camera to see something to the time the data is processed internally, there is less than 1 frame of video delay. This is also made possible through the networking communication within the system, as it fully supports managed layer II and layer III functions, such as VLAN and QoS processing, enabling differentiated services delivery and security through intelligent frame processing and egress frame manipulation.  The MRAP vehicles include 17" and 12" internal monitors, which are also provided by General Micro Systems, Inc., that display the external cameras’ video playback.  These touchscreen smart displays, each comparable in size to a rugged tablet, use gigabit or 10Gigabit Ethernet for extreme speed and data processing.  They also include bezel keys that are used to determine which camera to view at any given moment and a night vision imaging system (NVIS) for use in low or no light situations.  Industry standard GigE Vision also allows for pan, tilt, and zoom capabilities, providing the commander of the vehicle and passengers the ability to see any potential hazards and the environmental orientation of the area.  Coupled together and the Army ended up with one of the safest, most efficient “real-time” vision systems on the market today.

The Army required that the system include 6 individual virtualized workstations with separate I/O in order to control real-time video, defensive counter measures and other critical operations.  Each of the six I/O sites are fully independent, connected to the host CPU via PCI-Express lanes only, meaning that all I/O of one workstation is separate from the I/O of another and they are all fully monitored for security through Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and Trusted Execution Technology (TXT) utilization.

Moreover, it was vital that the system be equipped with embedded security measures, such as tamper-proof protection, which recognizes unfamiliar access of software and BIOS boot and locks the system only allowing restart with controlled reauthorization. Another key requisite allows an authorized user to “zero-ize” the system, placing all data and programs at zero for information fortification.  These mechanisms are embedded within the system as precautionary elements to aid in the preservation of any sensitive information obtained during surveillance applications or otherwise.

The Army’s program highlights one of the more acute applications that these stand-alone systems are being employed for. However, small systems like these will be key to all future mobile platforms requiring sophisticated processing, vision and communication.  Today’s intense reliance on electronic surveillance and data collection will only increase, and providing smaller more powerful systems that utilize less power will continue to test the talents of contemporary system developers.