July 12, 2006

HPWREN and the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve collaborate on a new generation of field-deployable high resolution network cameras

Remote environmental observations by means of network-deployed sensors has become an important component of the HPWREN activities over the years. This includes network cameras, publicly accessible at http://hpwren.ucsd.edu/cameras, which enjoys a large number of users on a daily basis. The cameras have especially proven useful in fire and flooding situations, to provide real-time visuals of actual incidents.

For some time now the image quality and image size of the network cameras HPWREN uses lag significantly behind what is available in even inexpensive consumer-grade cameras. On the other hand those consumer-grade cameras lack an integrated network interface. They may support some limited remote control and image collection via a built-in USB interface. However, support software is usually only available for proprietary operating systems such as Macintosh and Windows, with little consideration given to a documented programming interface for an open platform.

This, at first glance, makes those cameras not very attractive to autonomous installations in remote and non-staffed locations. However, an open software system, called gPhoto2, capable to communicate with those devices from an open operating system platform, such as FreeBSD or Linux, is freely available, and can be tailored to specific requirements. gPhoto2 was recently re-released as a new version with additional functionalities. Combined with embedded communication computers, such as a Soekris net4801-60, it is possible to create integrated systems out of off-the-shelf components, which was undertaken as a collaboration between HPWREN and the SDSU Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve.


For an initial prototype, a Canon A520 four megapixel camera was chosen, and connected using an IOGEAR GUCE50 USB extender via RJ45-cable. It also uses a separate AC power supply.

Soekris net4801-60

The USB extender then connects to the Soekris net4801-60 system, running FreeBSD as its operating system, and connecting via Ethernet to the HPWREN network.

In a second test, to determine whether an array of three cameras can create a viable 180 degree view, three Canon S80 eight megapixel cameras were aligned to augment each others images, adding up to almost 24 megapixels, and connected via a USB hub to the net4801-60 controller. The eventual objective is to create 360 degree views via multiple cameras, as HPWREN has done for years with two camera sets at http://hpwren.ucsd.edu/cameras.

Unfortunately the proprietary power connector in the camera and the lack of definitions for the acceptable input voltage range makes it hard to use anything but Canon's own expensive and bulky power supplies. A nice S80 feature is the recovery after an AC power outage without having to physically be at the camera to turn it back on.

three S80

cameras in Pablo's enclosure

Pablo Bryant designed and built a prototype enclosure for the 180 degree set, accomodating the three S80 cameras, power supplies, a USB hub, and the net4801-60 controller (top) and deployed it near the river bed at the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve (top box in right image). Resulting photos from this camera set are available at http://hpwren.ucsd.edu/cameras/.

cameras deployed in Pablo's enclusure

As an example camera application, on June 30, 2006 the Border Fire at I15 near SMER broke out, putting the Ecological Reserve into significant danger. While the CDF did an amazing job in extinguishing the fire before it turned into a large-scale disaster, several of the Santa Margarita network cameras were able to collect imagery of the incident, including the approximately east pointing one of the new camera array. The three photos were automatically taken as part of a daily series at ten minute intervals. The http://hpwren.ucsd.edu/HWB/SMER-I15-fire-20060630 image set shows the incident from an older type of network cameras that was closer to the fire, and also shows CDF air drops.

Border fire near SMER
Border fire near SMER
Border fire near SMER

Drawbacks of these cameras, when compared to IQeye3 cameras which HPWREN and SMER have been using for years, include that they do not support motion detect, fast image acquisition, and are not as well integrated as an entriely solid-state device, such as the IQeye3 cameras. In addition, even at ten minute intervals between images, and backing off during night time, the three cameras eight megapixel system collects about 650 megabytes a day, which is a substantial amount of data.

Camera in Pelco enclosure

In the future, it may be possible to create single camera/controller combinations integrated into one Pelco enclosure.

Mounted camera in Pelco enclosure

Mounted camera in Pelco enclosure, with the RJ45/cat5 and power cables attached.

Some of the thinking behind this work was based on already existing use by the Mt. Wilson Observatory of a consumer-grade camera with a USB extender, as shown at http://www.astro.ucla.edu/~obs/towercam.htm.

Please note: The product names used in this article are only meant to show some test examples, and they are not intended as endorsements of product suitability for any applications.

 back to top

  back to HPWREN news

field research
network analysis
  ~ university of california, san diego ~ © 2000 ~