ANPR (automatic numberplate recognition) has been around for many years, and has achieved a high degree of success in the field, especially for law enforcement agencies and border applications. However, the technology can also offer a high degree of flexibility for commercial sites.
Just as there are many points to debate as to the extent of features and functions required from a security solution, there are equally as many issues to consider relating to the best method for tackling crime and reducing risk. It is true that every application is different, and what works in one situation might not be applicable in another. What is desirable on one site might not deliver the required level of protection when used a few miles down the road, at another site. Security system design is very much a case of horses for courses, and creating a security solution is not only about what technologies are used, and how they are used; it is also a matter of assessing realistic threats, perceived threats and potential losses, and then working to reduce the risk to a point that is acceptable to the user.
Of course, while it should be agreed that a bespoke approach is necessary when assessing the threat from criminal activity, there are some elements of a system that can deliver value-added benefits to a wide range of users by following a fairly formulaic approach. Often these might be considered supplementary to the main purpose of the security solution, but inevitably they will be features that end users can utilise on a daily basis. They deliver real-world value-added benefits, every day of the working week. These features and functions will never be the sole reason for specifying a security system, but they will offer a genuine return on investment. This is because the additional functionality enhances the business operations of a site, as well as adding to the overall security and safety on offer.
An example of this is ANPR – automatic number-plate recognition. Many commercial and industrial sites will use video surveillance. Outside of working hours, this monitors the site for unauthorised intruders and other unexpected events. During working hours it plays a less high profile role, but will probably still be used to safeguard against any incidents. Where a number of vehicles use the site, it might also be used to investigate any accidents or incidents which occur during operational procedures. Of course, such an approach – whilst valuable – is somewhat reactive.
By adding ANPR to the solution, the approach suddenly becomes proactive! Vehicles can be automatically logged and tracked, and real-time information is available to those managing the site. The movements of visiting vehicles can be logged, along with those of company vehicles, and other devices such as barriers, gates and automated devices can be controlled in various ways, dependent upon the specific vehicles in the area.
Whilst the ANPR element itself will add something to the overall level of protection delivered by the video surveillance, it’s major benefit for the end user comes from its ability to automatically track, manage and report on vehicle movements, and to compile and use a database to enhance overall site management.
A credible option?
If there is one problem with ANPR, it is that it has become a victim of its own success. Widespread use by Police, border crossing authorities and various congestion charge schemes have endorsed the technology as a high end solution. Every software-based security manufacturer has identified it as a specialist video analysis tool. As a result, the overall perception of many end users (and a fair few industry insiders) is that the technology is expensive, difficult to set up, and impossible to justify for smaller applications.
In reality, such opinions are based upon the truth. However, it is certainly not the whole truth! In the past, when ANPR was used with traditional composite video systems, it was a difficult task. Essentially, there was a need to perform optical character recognition on a displayed image, and that wasn’t the cheapest way of doing things.
However, things have changed dramatically as digital video has become the established option. There is an ever-increasing range of ANPR packages to chose from, and mainstream DVRs and VMS packages are available with ANPR functionality on-board. In short, ANPR has arrived as an everyday tool.
The first myth to dismiss is that ANPR is expensive and difficult to install. It must be accepted that the Transport for London congestion charging scheme, along with other similar applications, was hugely expensive. However, it does cover a very large area with numerous entry and exit points and multiple lanes of traffic. Also, the system can afford to be expensive given the huge amount of revenue it raises. However, not all ANPR systems need be so vast or complex. Most industrial estates or depots, for example, will have one road in! The reality is that you are looking at a single or two lanes of ANPR, and that isn’t going to break the bank.
Next, consider system structure. It has to be said that ANPR systems are complex, but the complexity is within the software. This has already been handled by the manufacturer, who should also have included a simple to use GUI (graphical user interface). This will make set-up and configuration of the system a simple task.
One main consideration will be the type of cameras used, how they are positioned, and what supplementary lighting is required to ensure good coverage around the clock.
So, why would a commercial site want an ANPR system? The answer is that such a solution brings together security, site management, automation of certain facilities, access control and more. It is a multi-layered tool that can be as advanced or as simple as you need it to be. Too many people associated the technology with law enforcement and the need to interrogate the DVLA database, but such thinking misses the plethora of opportunities that such systems can deliver.
A range of benefits
ANPR systems use advanced technology, but the job they do is quite simple to understand. Effectively, they ‘read’ a number plate from a vehicle in an image, and log that as alphanumeric data linked to the relevant images. This means you have a datastream of vehicle details, images of vehicles, and links between the two. It is then up to the end user how they want to utilise that information.
In its most basic form, it provides an audit trail of which vehicles have entered a site. The data can be searched by time, by date, by number plate (or any derivation of this, such as number plates not seen before or not registered on the system), or visually via the video images.
If a vehicle enters the site, a data entry is created. A user could search records to see if any vehicles are returning to the site regularly, during or out of hours.
If security is important, a site might be protected with gates and barriers. Preventing vehicular access cuts down on the opportunity for crime. This is all well and good, unless vehicle movements are necessary out of working hours. If this is the case, the process of access control can be automated. If the user has a fleet of vehicles, they can program the system to recognise these and grant access out of hours, whilst denying access to any other unauthorised vehicles.
Should another company need to make a delivery out of hours, the system only needs the registration number of the specific vehicle to remotely manage the task. Recognising a number could automate gates to open, or could place a call to an authorised keyholder, or indeed could trigger any other number of actions. The ANPR system is effectively working as a detector, identifying specific vehicles and carrying out pre-defined actions.
Whilst much of this is based on a need for security, there are other benefits. On-site vehicle management during working hours could control the movement of vehicles around the site, or better facilitate loading and unloading procedures. It also allows simpler Health and Safety management, only allowing certain types of vehicles to operate on site at specified times or in certain areas. Essentially, the end user can implement what rules and conditions they want for any given vehicle on the site.
A case in point, where ANPR has been added for a commercial site following an upgrade of surveillance to a network-based digital platform, is the Movianto hub in Bedford. Movianto offers a logistics and transportation service for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. The hub operates around the clock, five days a week, storing and managing the distribution of healthcare products.
To ensure next-day delivery of cooled medicines, the company operates a fleet of dual-temperature vehicles. It also offers cold-chain management and delivery of life-critical medicines direct to patients at home, making 50,000 deliveries per month.
The site previously utilised two separate analogue video systems, which were nearing end-of-life. The replacement surveillance system was based on Milestone XProtect Professional, a VMS software package with support for numerous third party devices, including HD and megapixel cameras. The core system manages, records and replays captured video, which can also be accessed on numerous workstations using the XProtect Smart Client interface for viewing, recording and retrieval of the images.
The system uses a mixture of cameras from Axis Communications and Mobotix. The combined system automatically archives video footage for 30 days.
The IP cameras were also linked with perimeter protection. The concept was to monitor various areas with security risks such as loading bays, refrigeration areas, fire exits and the main entrance. Discreet cameras were also installed in high traffic areas such as the staff canteen, and in some corridors and other areas for health and safety reasons.
Movianto further leveraged the potential of the platform to include XProtect Analytics – which features ANPR – for two cameras, along with XProtect Transact software. The cameras with ANPR capabilities are positioned at the main entrance, and record all vehicle movements in and out of the site whilst also creating a full audit trail of all activities.
All vehicle number plates are automatically logged by the system, and checked against a known database of registrations. This not only assists with regard to site management, but also offers protection against unauthorised access by other unknown vehicles.
The new system has enabled the Movianto facilities management and security teams to not only capture high quality images, but also to automatically identify vehicles travelling in and out of the site.
The network infrastructure ensures that authorised staff can access and interrogate the relevant data, as and when required, to assess vehicle movements in real-time.
ANPR allows Movianto to take control of their site, and to effectively manage it whilst also maintaining ease of access for those with authority to be on site, balanced against a higher level of security. The technology is not cost-prohibitive, nor is it overly complicated.
Increasingly, the security industry is seeing demand for ANPR and other analytics offerings from commercial sites. For those who think ANPR is only a law enforcement tool, it is time to think again.