MicroPower Wireless IP Video Examined

Author: Benros Emata, Published on Dec 19, 2010

In video surveillance, few wireless start-ups with significant technology innovation exist. One interesting new entrant is California based MicroPower who is developing technology that they claim can reduce the wireless video power consumption by up to 95%. In December 2010, they announced a new round of funding ($2.2 Million) and upcoming product releases for Spring 2011.

We conducted an analysis of MicroPower, speaking with the executives of the company, to understand not only their approach but their limitations. Inside the PRO section, we dig into the details and examine the tradeoffs.

Micropower is starting with two wireless cameras: a 'traditional' fixed solar-powered outdoor fixed camera and a covert/wearable camera. Both of these (and especially the solar-powered) offer notable novel advances but also important limitations that impact the use and specification of the products.

The significant reduction in power consumption provides benefits and opens up new opportunities but that important logistical and deployment limitations must be carefully considered.

[UPDATE 2013: See our review on Micropower's 2nd Generation offering.]

Application Recommendations

The best fit for MicroPower's solution is likely fixed cameras that need to be deployed outdoors where access to power is limited and costly. By lowering power requirements and integrating a very small form factor solar solution, MicroPower can provide a simple solution to this challenge.

On the other hand, only two cameras are planned for initial Spring 2010 release (the Rugged-i and Mini-i) and both have notable limitations: Both are VGA fixed cameras and neither support day/night or WDR. If you need a PTZ, megapixel or are faced with poor night-time lighting or bright sunlight (common issues), MicroPower may be a poor fit.

Additionally, in outdoor situations where power can be obtained from a light pole (or other infrastructure) the MPT system provides much less competitive value as power can be 'tapped' from the source for traditional surveillance solutions.

Applications benefiting from periodic camera re-deployments may also benefit. Not having to consider power issues allows cameras to be redeployed to their optimal locations quickly, in response to acute trouble areas. Note that if the receiver (hub) is able to remain at one location as cameras are re-located, then the benefit is greater. A parking lot or any open area where the receiver can cover a large percentage of possible camera re-deployments represents an ideal use case. A less ideal campus environment, for example, is likely to entail the additional task of re-locating the base-station - due to high probability of obstructions.

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The Mini-i camera's miniature profile and low-power consumption helps outfit personnel and/or remote-control vehicles with cameras that can transmit video to command and control entities wirelessly. For example, a remote controlled helicopter could surveil a militarily hostile area to gain useful intelligence. Or, public safety/military personnel could provide video to higher level command personnel. Such applications may not require the full-scale video management services that the MPT solution enables - nor justify the high premium costs involved - but the alternative consumer grade 'spy-cam' options present performance and reliability risks.

As with all startups, the products will develop over time. We will continue to track and update our recommendations as the product offering evolves.

Key Limitations Summary

Note a number of important limitations:

  • MJPEG only (H.264 in future 2011 release planned)
  • No PTZs 
  • No Day/Night, No WDR
  • No Megapixel

The fixed outdoor solution - the Rugged-i - offers cheaper and easier outdoor monitoring but with important limitations.

Product Overview

There are two models of cameras available:

The Rugged-i camera is intended for fixed camera deployments. Essential components are located within the enclosure (camera, encoder, radio, battery, charger) or affixed to the enclosure (antenna, solar panels) itself. The entire system operates on roughly 400mW of power. The battery and solar array have been designed for 24x7 operation with tolerance for up to 30 'dark' days. (The performance specs are based on the manufacturer's selected geographic reference). 

The Mini-i camera is intended for mobile surveillance applications. It does not feature any solar power components; it is powered through a rechargeably battery. There is a radio/antenna/battery unit and a detachable miniature camera with a 72-inch cord that comprise the Mini-i.

*Rugged-i and Mini-i cameras can both communicate with MPT hub/base-station.

One MPT Hub:

The MiniHub is intended for indoor mounting in a vehicle or communications facility. Note it is not a solar powered unit, but relies on conventional power (AC/transformer)

An MPT system requires one or more MiniHubs to 'translate' MPT cameras for use with VMS systems. The hubs themselves are neither a DVR nor NVR/VMS. They act more like access-points and present associated MPT cameras as standard IP cameras to VMSes on the wired LAN.

Cameras and hubs ship with omni-directional antennas. The default radio power and antenna systems result in roughly 1,000ft LoS for Mini-i and 5,000ft LoS for Rugged-i cameras. Theoretically, a hub can asssociate up to 16 MPT cameras, but current guidance from the manufacturer is a maximum of 4 cameras per hub.

Each camera and hub communicates wirelessly using two frequency bands: 2.4GHz for video feeds and 900MHz for control signals. Note that they are not based on 802.11/WiFi, but employ their own TDMA based protocol. The 900MHz exhibits less free-space attenuation than 2.4GHz and as such the control channel can provide supervisory and other signaling even after the 2.4GHz channel is no longer serviceable. This out of band signaling strategy lends itself to some additional 'self-healing' strategies to maintain video availability and provide supervisory/alarm notifications to edge devices.

Compression and VMS Support

The first release of MPT products will only support MJPEG, while H.264 and ONVIF support will be available in the following late 2011 release. Also, MPT has not disclosed the particular camera model that the system is to emulate for VMSes, but has indicated that the emulated camera is widely supported by numerous VMS systems.

Advanced Technology

One key caveat or limiting principle with MPT's low power approach is the inability to incorporate power intensive features into the edge device. This makes featues such as pan/tilt/zoom much more challenging due to the motor activity. It also may inhibit the incorporation of megapixel technology as it is more bandwidth intensive and thus requires higher processing. Analytics are also a challenge due to the extra processing requirement as well.

In general, potential adopters should be aware of the inherent limitations in the product development cycle. The technology is still in an early stage and is not expected to improve in leaps and bounds. Adopters may find themselves 'locked-in' as the wider market will tend to move forward at a greater pace.

Competitive Comparison

MPT's fixed camera solution (Rugged-i) replicates the more traditional components into one extremely low-power self-contained edge device. When taking the traditional approach the following core pieces are generally required:

  • Solar power solution (PV panels, charge controller and battery array)
  • Broadband IP radio
  • IP camera

The benefit of the traditional, as opposed to the MPT, approach is the independence between the selection of the three core components. As long as each component meets certain general specifications, part substitution within the 'traditional' system is generally not a problem across vendors, models etc. Probably the greatest advantage of this 'open-ness' is the available full market of IP cameras with which the system will interoperate.

A four camera MPT fixed solution would require 4 Rugged-i cameras at MSRP $2,500 each or $10,000. The MiniHub cost of $2,500 brings total cost to $12,500. To compare to a traditional solar solution we can estimate each camera site at roughly $3,000 (solar solution $1,500; Ubiquiti radio $100; and IP camera $400; additional installation/design $1000) yielding a total cost of $12,000 for all four sites. Since pricing per camera/site is roughly equivalent at ~$3,000 determining factors are likely to be megapixel vs. SD, permanent fixed vs. temporary fixed, PTZ requirements, etc.

For mobile applications the Mini-i camera faces competition from the consumer market, which features a host of 'spy-cam' offerings. A Mini-i camera and MiniHub entails a cost of $4,500, while many 'spy-cams' can be found online for less than $200.

Some representative spy-cams:

The sunglass concept does not offer remote monitoring capabilities; so information can not be presented back to a command and control entity. However, it does offer an on-board DVR for applications just requiring video documentation. On the other hand, the wireless spy-cam enables remote monitoring but offers only half the range (450ft.) of the Mini-i (1000ft). No run-time information is available on the consumer wireless camera, but it is presumably much less than the 12hrs provided by the Mini-i.

Obviously these consumer products will suffer from reliability and support issues, and will likely fail to appeal to public safety, law enforcement and military agencies - key markets for Mini-i type applications. The MPT/Mini-i architecture will also provide VMS support and scalability for multiple mobile surveillance units.

There are also professional grade products available designed for more rugged military, and public safety applications. They are priced at a premium over their consumer level counterparts at roughly $300 - $500, but still significantly less than the MPT/Mini-i solution. However, they still typically feature on-board storage rather than a wireless video transmission strategy.

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