Testing Smartphones as Surveillance Cameras

By Ethan Ace, Published May 24, 2012, 12:00am EDT

Using smartphones as surveillance cameras is one of the biggest trends in 2012, with multiple manufacturers announcing apps. These apps allow live video to be streamed from the phone's camera directly to a VMS, for viewing and recording by central operators, providing live coverage of incidents as they occur. While most of these apps are proprietary to the VMS, at least one open platform option is available

In this report, we test one of these apps, AirBeam, for iOS. This brief video overviews the app, streaming video in real-time to a VMS system.

There are several key limitations to remember when considering AirBeam as part of your surveillance system:

  • Only HTTP streaming, with no RTSP or ONVIF support. HTTP streaming is not widely supported among major VMS manufacturers, though some support it via generic drivers. Lower-cost VMSs are more likely to allow direct entry of an HTTP URL. The lack of RTSP and ONVIF support is likely a major limitation for the majority of users.
  • Only MJPEG encoding, with no support for H.264, resulting in greater bandwidth and storage usage. Given the periodic nature of the mobile app's use, however, this likely not a large problem. Wi-Fi networks should not suffer issues from a single MJPEG stream, and occasional use to record incidents will likely result in limited impact to storage.
  • The app will not work over 3G/4G connections, only Wi-Fi. According to the AirBeam FAQ, this is due to incoming connection restrictions by wireless carriers. This limits its use to in-building only, or in outdoor areas with wireless hotspots. This may be impractical in many campus settings, and likely makes it completely unusable in public spaces, such as public streets, demonstrations, or events. 
  • Each AirBeam device requires a camera license. This may become cost prohibitive if multiple devices are to be used. Other platforms, such as DVTel, plan to offer license packs or concurrent licenses, so each device does not consume a license, despite its periodic use.

Key Benefits

Overall, AirBeam worked well, and simply. 

  • Setup was simple, requiring only <IP ADDRESS>/video to be entered as the camera's URL in our VMS, along with the port and username and password, if anything other than default is used. Once the device is added as a camera, connection is very quick. After starting the app, video is received by the VMS in a matter of seconds.
  • Framerate and resolution are configurable, up the 720p resolution at 30 frames per second. Both front and rear cameras may be used, but HD resolution is only available when using the rear camera.
  • UPnP is available for automatic port forwarding, making the camera available on the public internet. UPnP will not work in all instances, however, as we have discussed previously, requiring users to manually forward ports should it fail.

Applications for AirBeam

AirBeam's lack of ONVIF/RTSP and 3G/4G support are the most limiting factors of the application. For organizations using VMSs without HTTP support, including most major manufacturers, it is simply not an option. Furthermore, the lack of 3G/4G support prevents it from being used in public or wide open spaces without Wi-Fi access, limiting its adoption by many police and security forces.

However, there are two potential fits where AirBeam may work well:

  • In-Facility guard tours: A guard may use the app to send video of incidents as they occur, or of damage to the facility, so conditions may be recorded. This limits the need for separate documentation, since video may be sent and stored in real-time. 
  • Gaming: In casinos, the mobile app will allow staff on the floor of the casino to observe tables unobtrusively, in real-time, allowing security staff more or better angles to determine if cheating is taking place. 

App Overview Video

This video walks users through the configuration of the app, including framerate and resolution, UPnP settings, and audio and motion detection options.

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