Choosing Video Surveillance Drones
Drone inspection. Operator inspecting construction building site flying with drone. sunset
As video surveillance makes increasing inroads into the traditional alarm detection market it’s hard to ignore the fact drones may offer high security sites the capability to monitor large or complex spaces more efficiently, more completely and more affordably than ever before.
DRONES have the capability to change the way many sites handle, not just video surveillance, but perimeter detection and even remote access control as well. There’s no denying the cost of extremely capable drones is reaching the point they are a viable tool for commercial premises serious about security. From the point of view of a manned site, drones give security operators the ability to programme an automated response to an alarm event on the site’s perimeter, whether it occur along a fence line, at a gated entry point or at the access door to a remote building.
When an alarm event is activated, a drone can launch automatically and fly to a preset position giving situational awareness of the zone in alarm via the site’s VMS. This allows operators to get ‘eyes on’ and delivers a much faster response time to alarm events than would be possible if a security officer was required to leave a guard house go to a vehicle and drive to a remote location before reporting back via radio to an operator unable to see the situation.
Another valuable use of drones is to fly patrols of vulnerable areas of a site at set times of day. This might involve watching a distant car park or keeping an eye on a path that has no surveillance but is heavily trafficked after 5pm. Drones can also keep an eye on sensitive deliveries and assist in access control events. They may also fly automated patrols of large, heavily wooded sites, which might be the subject of intrusion attempts along huge perimeters, or which face increased fire threats. Integrated thermal surveillance is ideal for night time monitoring of remote perimeters, as well as detecting outbreaks of fire day and night. Drones also allow security operators to fly to events directly, assess the situation and report to management and emergency services.
Even compact drones with modest optical resolutions allow security teams to keep an eye on large events, monitor traffic flows around and within their site, and easily secure video footage of events or the aftermath of events as evidence. As well as checking on infrastructure and plant equipment around a site, they can also be deployed to check out developing natural disasters safely and quickly – including hail damage, wind damage and flood waters. Drones can also monitor adjacent bushland and waterways to assist police search for missing persons near secure property.
Some of the advantages of compact drones for security surveillance include the fact they are quiet and being compact, they are discreet. Few people will notice them moving about. They also relatively low power draw and cost almost nothing to run, especially if there’s some renewable energy in the power equation. They also have relatively long flight times thanks to their modest power draw. If there’s capable software managing drones it’s also relatively easy to handle mission planning and implementation and video streams can be stored aboard the drone or streamed live to the security control room for display on a video wall.
Another valuable capability of drones is their ability to handle challenging weather conditions, including heat, rain, snow, fog, wind (to certain limits) and when fitted with thermal sensors, darkness. Drones are also happy operating in cold weather and at high terrestrial altitudes and are just as happy over water as they are over broken country. Their capability is attractive in multiple applications – from Antarctic expeditions attempting to traverse ice floes, to monitoring large sharks off Australian beaches. But there’s no application quite so perfect for drones as supporting cash-poor, operations-heavy security teams.
It’s worth noting that an important aspect of working with drones will be establishing procedures and protocols, particularly for work around perimeters. Drones are highly flexible surveillance tools – you can’t just slap a privacy mask over an area in the field of view and forget about it. Thought is going to need to be put into ethical use of the technology that maximises its value while minimising the potential for misuse or abuse. This will need to feed into operator training and form a central element of security team culture.
Features You Want
For security surveillance applications you need to get a solid sense of what the operational requirements will be. Buying a drone with a 4K sensor and a quality fixed lens that can’t live stream its massive bitrate video feed to a control room for monitoring of alarm events is likely to deny operators the flexibility they need to make the most of the capabilities of drone technology. You don’t want a low-quality camera, either. Resolutions of 720p would be a minimum for situational awareness and these may do better in failing light. But for surveillance of busy areas during daylight hours, it’s likely a 4K sensor would be the best option.
The addition of thermal sensing will be a benefit for any security application – thermal allows you to see intruders or missing persons in the dark, as well as being able to cut through inclement weather conditions. Lens angle is another consideration with fixed lens drones. You want the angle of view to be a little less, rather than more than you need. A tighter angle of view means less pixel spread and operators can easily turn the drone to cover unfolding events. Remote zooms are also a worthwhile feature, especially if lens quality is reasonable but they are more likely to be useful to hands-on operators than they would be for automated guard tours. A zoom allows the drone to get a closer look from further away, as well as to snare face recognition of intruders around perimeter sterile zones.
A quality of surveillance drones that’s highly valuable is stability. Larger drones are more stable and more stable drones deliver superior image quality. You want good onboard recording, as well as the ability to stream – if there are dual streams, the live stream might run at 15ips while onboard storage takes place at 30ips and is accessed for investigations. It’s also important the drone have range commensurate with the size of your application – most drones can handle 5000+ metres line-of-sight, so this should not be a huge drama. But there will be variables particular to your site. Landforms, vegetation, bodies of water, built structures and local radio comms will all impact on a drone’s performance.
Something else that’s important is potential flight time. You want the drone to be able to move about your site and/or hover for at least half an hour – more is better. Supporting flight time is the capacity for fast charging. The faster the unit charges the more air time you’ll get. Depending on your application, you may deploy 2 drones operating as a tag-team but charge time will always bookend your temporal coverage of the site. There are expensive industrial drones that have flight times running into hours, but these serious solutions might be a hard sell to management unless your application is high security.
Finally, you want a drone that’s easy to set up and easy to integrate with an existing CCTV solution or security management system, allowing it to report events to security teams in the most intuitive way. There are mechanical components that need to be assembled with drones but nothing that’s beyond an electronic security tech. Setting up tours and granting access to video streams in the VMS will be the big challenges – some video management solutions handle this better than others.