Mar 29 2007

Wi-Fi Flies High

The search for cost efficiency leads airports to blend wireless video into existing security applications.

Wi-Fi Flies High
The search for cost efficiency leads airports to blend wireless video into existing security applications.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport began rolling out wireless cameras as part of a pilot project because it wanted to work out security concerns before broadening use of a Wi-Fi video system, says Lance Lyttle, CIO for the Atlanta Department of Aviation.

Managing security at an airport is no simple task. There are passenger terminals to watch and runways to scrutinize, baggage areas to monitor and IT facilities to examine. Keeping thieves, vandals and potential terrorists at bay requires constant, ongoing vigilance.

“Security is a formidable challenge,” says Lois Vallance, manager for Smyrna Airport in Smyrna, Tenn.

Nevertheless, it’s essential to keep systems up to speed and protect expensive assets, including multimillion-dollar aircraft. Although all airports rely on security personnel, surveillance systems and other tools, many are now expanding their coverage by adding wireless video cameras, which typically link to 802.11g networks.

At Smyrna Airport, for example, 13 wireless cameras monitor the 1,700-acre facility and its two runways: one 8,037 feet long and another 5,546 feet long. The town of Smyrna and surrounding Rutherford County operate the regional airport, which accommodates 300-plus takeoffs and landings a day by mainly private aircraft. All the wireless cameras have tilt-and-zoom capability and allow real-time monitoring as well as digital recordings so staff can review images later.

$100K - The investment that Smyrna Airport in Tennessee made in a wireless video system of 13 cameras to provide blanket coverage of the 1,700-acre facility.

Not Alone

But wireless networks aren’t just for small airports. Long Beach Airport in Long Beach, Calif., uses wired and wireless cameras to monitor 220,000 passengers and 1,125 landings each month (see sidebar, Page 41). And the 5.8-million-square-foot Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is testing wireless video, too.

Using 10 cameras installed at Hartsfield- Jackson last year, “we’re able to monitor remote locations and obscure spots throughout the airport facility,” says Lance Lyttle, CIO for the Atlanta Department of Aviation. “We’re also able to put cameras in place quickly and on a temporary basis. In many cases, putting cables and wired cameras in all these places would be time-consuming and costly.”

The international airport that serves Atlanta is moving to wireless video cameras one step at a time. Hartsfield-Jackson has hundreds of cameras running over a traditional wired network. Many switch on only when there’s movement — or when a security manager decides to take a closer look. The airport began installing its wireless cameras in mid-2006 as part of a pilot. Once it completes testing, it expects to add dozens, maybe hundreds, later this year, says Lyttle, who rolled out an 802.11 network airportwide in 2005.

The wireless cameras that the airport is testing can be programmed to switch on only when there’s movement, significantly reducing storage requirements. The cameras also let airport employees monitor camera feeds from their desktop and notebook computers. The airport is evaluating various cameras because “we want to make sure we put the right cameras in the right place and maximize our investment,” Lyttle says.

Testing makes sense, says David Shepherd, a systems engineer for LMI Government Consulting in McLean, Va. “Wireless video provides flexibility, improves coverage areas and helps reduce costs,” he says. “But it’s a double-edged sword because it is vulnerable to interference, disruptions and its own security problems.”

The Plane Facts

The flexibility of the wireless cameras was a huge factor for Smyrna Airport. In 2003, the facility began installing wired digital cameras and, in early 2006, it followed with wireless cameras. The project has cost less than $100,000. The cameras cover almost every part of the airfield.

“It’s a selling point for the airport when we’re looking to attract customers. People who spend millions of dollars on an aircraft know that we’re doing everything possible to protect it,” Vallance says.

The airport has installed five access points across the facility. Later this year, it will add five cameras to the wireless infrastructure. All the video, encrypted using Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2), feeds into a desktop PC. The system — which relies on black-and-white and color cameras — spans terminals, gates and runways.

The cameras have changed the airport’s daily operations, Vallance says. “We can track an aircraft from the time it lands at the end of the runway to the time it goes to park at its destination.” In the future, the airport will likely expand the wireless network to support other services, such as Voice over IP communications and text messaging.

According to LMI’s Shepherd, wireless video can provide enormous value, but airports and other facilities must understand how to use it effectively and avoid viewing it as a way to cut costs by shrinking the security staff. “If it’s not set up correctly, instead of having a blind spot because you don’t have cameras in place at certain locations, you wind up exposing your entire network backbone to people that shouldn’t have access,” he says.

It’s essential to use high-grade encryption, place access points in secure locations, and minimize data interference with other aircraft and communications systems. Shepherd says that it is also smart to route security traffic and other key operations systems over a separate wireless network from the network an airport provides for passenger and visitor use. Not only does this lessen security risks, it reduces network traffic that could adversely affect performance during crucial periods.

For Atlanta, a chief part of its test turns on assuring that the airport meets the security requirements that the addition of a wireless video network creates. “We have security concerns that wouldn’t exist with wired systems,” Lyttle says. To prevent unauthorized access to the systems, the Atlanta airport has wireless intrusion detection. For now, the test system runs over the airport’s existing Wi-Fi network. To further control access, however, Lyttle says Atlanta might move its public-safety applications from the 2.4-gigahertz frequency range to the 5GHz spectrum that 802.11n uses.

Not all issues revolve around security, however. There’s also the bandwidth hurdle. Older 802.11b wireless systems typically don’t provide enough bandwidth to transmit video well. Networks built to 802.11g specs or the nearly ratified 802.11n standard can accommodate digital video and other traffic as well. Some up-front planning — along with real-world testing — will go a long way toward achieving success.

“It’s smart to use wireless for points that are either too far away for conventional cable or for situations, such as construction areas or specialized facilities, that require temporary coverage,” Shepherd says. “It’s another tool in the security arsenal.”

What It Takes to Make Wireless Work

  • Develop a plan. In most cases, it’s wise to combine conventional wired cameras with wireless devices. The latter are especially valuable for remote areas where it proves too costly and time-consuming to lay cable. But wireless creates additional security concerns that an agency must address before it goes live with a project. It also makes sense to integrate wireless video with other systems and to set appropriate access controls.
  • Choose technology based on open standards. By using an open platform and Internet Protocol-based equipment, it’s possible to expand and update the system as needed, as well as use emerging technologies to maximize the investment.
  • Conduct a pilot. It’s often impossible to know what types of cameras will work best and how the various systems will interact, so test equipment for several weeks. A pilot can also help refine the wireless video strategy and provide insights into how to design the network for maximum performance and return on investment.
  • Build appropriate safeguards. Make certain that wireless routers and access points are secure and prevent the installation of rogue access points. Keep servers protected and encrypt all data, preferably using Wi-Fi Protected Access 2. Also, use a separate wireless network for airport visitors so their data traffic does not interfere with security and public-safety traffic on the network.
  • Remember that video monitoring isn’t a substitute for conventional security. Although wireless video systems offer some impressive capabilities — including sophisticated video analytics that alert staff when something unusual or suspicious takes place — no system is foolproof. Tie video systems into the facility’s overall access control and don’t cut back on staff.

Extending Security’s Reach at Long Beach Airport

Long Beach Airport’s security crews have long used video systems for airport surveillance. But the addition of wireless cameras and a video system upgrade enhances their ability to monitor the farthest reaches of the busy California airport that sits midway between Orange County and Los Angeles.

The regional facility has installed almost 100 wired and wireless cameras. It uses the wireless cameras for remote locations on the airfield and at customer parking lots, some as distant as a mile from the main facilities. All the cameras stream data to a server, which stores the images digitally. Managers can also record the video to DVD, if necessary.

David Sansenbach, superintendent chief of security for the City of Long Beach Airport Bureau, says the video capabilities are part of a sophisticated access control system designed to meet Transportation Security Administration requirements. The airport upgraded its systems in 2005, moving from closed-circuit TV and live-video monitoring to the video storage system.

Now, with the wireless cameras in place, Long Beach security crews can view video from multiple locations, rewind footage and patch together comprehensive views of events. An alarm automatically triggers cameras to tilt, pan and zoom toward incidents.

“It’s an additional layer of security without deploying personnel all over the airport,” Sansenbach says. “It boosts the level of monitoring and security without any significant increase in costs.”

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