Just because you’re not paranoid, it doesn’t mean that they’re not watching you – or so the saying goes. It’s a fact these days that there are very few human activities that aren’t being monitored in one form or another. From car parks to traffic flow; telecomms networks, utilities to financial markets, the acquisition and centralised management of large volumes of data is commonplace and becoming more so with each passing year. Paranoiacs and Orwellian conspiracy theorists might be having sleepless nights, but companies supplying the technical expertise behind command and control applications are doing increasing levels of business thanks to ‘Big Brother’.
Nevertheless, the reversal of fortunes in the communications sector has caused a shift in focus, thinks David Griffiths of Christie Digital: “Last year was a tough year for everyone. I think we all got hit by the slowdown in telecomms, but manufacturers are searching hard for new markets”. And it seems, there are no shortage of opportunities. “We’ve seen growth in Europe, and in the UK transport market specifically”, says Synelec’s Steve Murphy. Synelec provided 12 cubes for London’s much publicised Congestion Charging scheme. Early indications are that the scheme has been successful, which will almost certainly lead to similar schemes being trialled elsewhere. Synelec are currently engaged on a new traffic control project in Manchester, with more set to follow.
Along with transport, community safety schemes are showing strong growth. According to Steve Murphy, the UK market now accounts for an astonishing 45% share of the world CCTV system market, with more new schemes being added all the time. “South Shields council’s CCTV surveillance system now accounts for something like 800 convictions a year. They are looking to expand this scheme with the opening of a new monitoring centre this year”, confirms Steve. UK government commitments on crime and transport, coupled with the imposition of tight fiscal restraints, means that technology-based solutions are being looked at with renewed interest by local authorities.
Applications and initiatives that would previously have been unfeasibly expensive are becoming not just viable, but actually the most cost effective overall solution. Like all urban authorities, Manchester City Council are required to balance public demands for improved services with cost. But in Manchester’s case, hosting last year’s Commonwealth Games placed additional demands on resources. Manchester’s response was the formation of a joint venture with National Car Parks Ltd, called NML, to enable the creation of an all new control centre. “The goal of NML”, says project manager Neil Robson, “Was to create joined-up operation of Manchester’s city centre, traffic flow, parking and community safety.” In what Lord Falconer described as “The way forward for city centre management”, police, the local authority and NCP operate side by side within a state-of-the-art, purpose built command and control centre. “There were already a number of monitoring systems installed around the city, but the aim was to get rid of the traditional site-based CCTV and VCR’s and bring it all together under one roof”. The pooling of resources in this way has. enabled significant increases in operational efficiency while delivering a better public service. “We now have one of the most sophisticated control rooms in Europe”, continues Neil, “The careful selection of our partners was critical in achieving that”. NML appointed systems integrator Synectics (UK) as their lead contractor. Synectics in turn appointed Barco as their display solution provider. “What clinched it for us was the flexibility and scaleability of Barco’s Hydra system”, says Neil. With a projected lifespan of twenty years, upward compatibility is an important consideration. “We will want to add more channels as we go along. With Hydra, we can do that easily by simply adding more cards.” The whole system will eventually migrate from its current analogue to a digital video distribution network. Once again, this is accomplished by a simple card swap.
The centrepiece of NML’s control room is a virtual monitor array consisting of six Barco Atlas 84” displays. The left hand side of the display wall is used by Greater Manchester Police and local authorities to monitor and control the city centre, while the right hand side deals with monitoring the 19 car parks currently linked to the system. Driving the displays are six Barco Hydra controllers allowing operators to monitor any of the 412 cameras installed around the city centre. Footage from these cameras is stored digitally and can be recalled instantly. The NML control centre currently has over 60 Terrabytes of information stored on the system! Each operator’s workstation consists of three LCD panels running Flash-based GUI’s developed by Synectics in conjunction with Barco. For CCTV operations, Barco’s iSurveillance solution allows operators to monitor images, in a variety of display formats. Car park operator consoles have a virtual map which allows the operator to drill down from a map of the city, to an individual car park and then to different levels within that car park. Synectics’ interface also allows operators to control barriers remotely, monitor equipment status or manage the driver information systems situated on major routes around the city.
Naturally, such sophistication doesn’t come cheap: “Involving companies like Barco and IBM seemed extravagant and expensive at the time but it was the only realistic option: A local CCTV company would not have been able to cope with a project of this size”. On face value, the cost of high-end displays and control systems might indeed seem expensive compared to a CRT solution. But, not so according to Neil. “All things considered, we’ve actually achieved considerable savings when cost of ownership is factored in. When Barco and Synectics produced a detailed cost analysis of CRT verses projection, the projection solution was considerably cheaper over the long term”. The greater efficiency of projection cubes meant less maintenance, lower power consumption and significant economies in the air-conditioning requirements. Slimmer profiles meant less impact on floor space and less weight reduced floor loading, which in turn enabled savings in structural costs.”
In command and control, the integrated approach is essential: Jamie Farmer of Electrosonic: “Rather than just saying we’ll just put in a few displays and wire them up, there is a high service expectation within the command and control business. The service element is hugely important and an integral part of our ethos.” So is knowledge rather than tangible hardware actually the real product? “Absolutely”, says Jamie. “We rely on our expertise to ensure that we interpret a client’s needs accurately and provide support from consultation right through to delivery.” Mike Kings echoes these sentiments: “Yes of course we supply hardware into a project, but it’s the expertise and long term support that’s really critical. It’s that expertise that determines how we display the required information and therefore how successfully we can create useable software/hardware environments to support a customer’s activities. We see ourselves as a true systems integrator and solutions provider. That really is at the heart of what we do”.
Command and control projects are mission critical, technology-heavy applications requiring a great deal of expertise; not just in display technologies but a wide variety of data management and network disciplines. The different philosophies adopted by technology suppliers makes direct comparisons between them difficult. Unlike a projector shoot-out, for example, there’s much more involved than just lining up one manufacturer’s box against another and checking the price tag. Manufacturers are spread across an entire spectrum of opinion about whether display control systems should be based on hardware, software or a hybrid of the two.
Electrosonic pioneered much of the technology seen today in command and control, such as the videowall concept using projection cubes – a legacy that lives on with their Vector controller. But despite such an enviable pedigree, Vector has not penetrated the European command and control market as successfully as Electrosonic would have liked, mainly because command and control is now much more network rather than video-oriented. The cost of Vector’s very high quality video performance is not seen as justifiable in many situations. In response, Electrosonic are about to release a new system designed to compete directly with similar offerings from European rivals Barco and Synelec. But, despite the fact that price is clearly an issue in the market, Electrosonic have stuck to developing a proprietary hardware products in preference to hybrid or software-based systems. “For a while, we were headed in the network direction, but I think we’re heading back the other way now”, comments Jamie. But why the change of heart? “It really is to guarantee the robustness of the system” explains Jamie. “With software based systems, you’re putting an awful lot of faith in that little processor which is also running everything else. Serious bottlenecks or security risks can be caused by trying to handle a lot of analogue video over the network, for example. A single analogue video input increases load on the computer’s PCI bus tremendously”.
System robustness is also high on Synelec’s list of priorities. “Customers want to have total confidence that in times of crisis, the system will deliver the information they need, where they need it”. Synelec employ a combination of hardware and network control in their display controllers to produce what Steve Murphy terms a “Distributed Solution”. He elaborates: “We operate a full dual-redundancy approach which means key applications can be displayed via a network or an RGB route in response to external events”. In Synelec systems, the processing is shared across several elements of the system. “Our RGB processing is done on-board each cube, so if a critical part of the network goes down, the displayed information can be automatically moved elsewhere to a pre-determined part of the display. It’s this decision-making ability and resilience that customers really want.” And they should know: Since 1986, over 95% of Synelec’s turnover has been derived from control room projects such as BT’s National Network Management Centre in Oswestry. “BT spent a long time looking at the available products in the marketplace before reaching their decision, which was based more on reliability and technology rather than cost. Of particular importance to BT was having no critical point of failure”. Steve points out that single tier solutions “do not offer much system resilience because they represent a single point of failure. A server-based solution, even though it might employ multiple network or RGB paths, still represents a single point of failure.”
Paul Nobel of Imtech, however, is not dissuaded: “I have the highest respect for all companies still making this technology, but I don’t feel it’s the future”. The future for Paul is command and control display applications which are entirely software based, running on freely available off-the-shelf servers. Imtech used to manufacture hardware videowall controllers until Paul had what he describes as “a revelation”. “I realised how absurd it is for relatively small companies to be making hardware. Developing and supporting hardware products is very, very tough.” Imtech’s Activu system is entirely software based, using the existing client LAN/WAN infrastructure to distribute signals. In the USA, Imtech are in the final stages of commissioning an Activu-based system for the New Jersey Transport Authority, which at 255’ long and between 5’ and 10’ high, is believed to be the largest command and control display ever built. “Our clients love Activu because it delivers network power that they didn’t think was possible”. Imtech claim to have experienced “no problems “ with reliability and to be able to “meet or exceed expectations for operational performance”. Imtech also make a strong case that their software solution approach offers major advantages in terms of future proofing, cost effectiveness and customer support. Activu’s development cycle is continuous and Imtech provide updates as part of its support programme. As for the hardware, Paul says, “The components are all off-the-shelf and sold world-wide on a massively huge scale. We, and our customers, benefit from those economies of scale. Furthermore, these are companies which offer 365, 24/7 response anywhere in the world. Not us, not Barco… not any of us could match that”.
“What we have created at Imtech is a concept-driven operation”, says Paul. “We want to de-mystify the hardware so that we can point to one of our products and say ‘it’s just a computer’ or ‘it’s just a cube’. I think that’s where it’s going, in just the same way that all projectors now essentially look the same. It’s the quality of the company behind the product: Customers want to see a company that stands behind its technology”. It’s this establishment of credibility in terms of expertise rather than just hardware that’s vitally important. Visucomm’s Magician system is an example of a hybrid solution combining both standard and proprietary hardware with specialist software. Recent projects for Visucomm have included a system for the US Army in the UK and a complete refurbishment of the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Authority’s control room for the Glasgow underground using 67” Clarity RP displays.
There are of course many different options when it comes to the choice of display. And once again, there is more than one opinion on which technology will replace CRT as the de rigeur display technology. While Mike Kings exposes the benefits of Clarity’s single chip LCD cube, David Griffiths of Christie claims “Everyone now seems to be acknowledging DLP as the preferred display technology in command and control”. According to Christie, the accuracy of colour rendition distinguishes DLP from LCD as the technology of choice. “Colour reproduction becomes incredibly important in command and control applications”, says David Griffiths. “It’s essential that colours are reproduced accurately because much of the information you are displaying is colour coded and you are expecting operators to act based on the information they see.” Brant continues, “We recently completed a control room installation for Italian Railways in Pisa. Yellow and orange are both used in the display, and it’s obviously hugely important that operators can clearly distinguish between them”. For the Pisa project, Christie worked with Dutch company Ansaldo Signal NV Group, specialists in railway signalling with an impressive 13% of the world market. Christie’s display is comprised of twenty six DLV1280DX projection engines, rear projecting onto DNP high contrast screens. The choice of rear projection over the use of projection cubes was significant, as David Griffiths explains: “Customers have less money to spend but require more display ‘real estate’. We regularly get asked for screens of 100” diagonal or beyond. The advantage of rear projection is that you can achieve bigger sizes using less projection equipment”.
Analysing and understanding the scope of a project in its entirety is arguably more critical in command and control than most other display applications. “You have to have a far greater understanding of how it all works together – there’s a lot more involved”, says David Griffiths. “It’s not just about hardware, and it’s not just about software: The emphasis is on providing solutions.” Do Christie ever see a time when control room technology becomes commoditised with plug-and-play network boxes and displays? “Different customers require different things. It’s not so much price oriented as driven by the ability to provide the service. That can’t be commoditised”. David continues, “Providing solutions is very different from saying to a customer ‘how many boxes do you want’? Brant Eckett adds: “Solutions rarely come off the shelf”. Despite the hotly contested opinions amongst the command and control community, there’s few that would argue with that.
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