The term “transportation surveillance technology” may have a sinister ring to it, but this sector is, according to one of its leading advocates, a UK “national treasure”.
Forget the world of Alsatians and nightwatchmen. From algorithms to video analytics, and 3-D x-ray equipment to virtual tripwires, transport security is a rapidly growing, technology-driven marketplace in which UK companies are in the vanguard.
“It’s probably little known that the UK is the CCTV capital of the world; it’s one of our national treasures,” says Pauline Norstrom, chairman of the CCTV section of the British Security Industry Association.
Digital security and surveillance is used more in the UK than anywhere else, according to Digital Barriers, which began trading on Aim earlier this year.
It was formed by the team behind Detica, an FTSE 250 specialist consultancy acquired by BAE Systems in 2008 for £531m.
The most significant threat to our security, says Digital Barriers, comes not from state-to-state conflict but from international and domestic terrorism, specifically attacks on crowded public spaces, high-profile targets and critical national infrastructure.
To protect these locations effectively, it says, we must ensure they appear defended against a potential terrorist attack.
There are, Ms Norstrom says, about 2,000 UK companies involved in the design, manufacture and supply of security equipment in the UK; of these about 20 per cent are involved in transportation.
IMS, an independent research body, estimates the 2010 value of security equipment in the transport sector in the UK at £130m.
While traditional analog cameras and associated infrastructure were constrained technically and in terms of cost, the advent of digital technology and video-over-IP products, coupled with increasingly sophisticated software and faster computers, has opened up new possibilities.
Companies such as Newcastle-based Generic AI are working on the intersection of several technologies.
With the backing of a six-figure Home Office contract, Generic Al has used the mathematical concept of the “principle of least action” to develop an algorithm to detect anomalies in crowd behaviour.
Generic AI has also had consultancy support from Secure Futures, which specialises in helping technology business with security innovations attract funding.
Some companies, such as Datong are focused on military, police and defence sectors; others including Petards, a Tyneside-based Aim-listed company, and County Durham–based Kromek, have products that reach across several sectors that may be encountered by the general public.
CCTV is now ubiquitous in the UK in public areas such as buses, trains and airports. The threat to the UK from terrorism has brought surveillance into the public spotlight, even though the practice remains controversial.
“People get concerned about surveillance and Big Brother but this is the sort of thing that government can’t ignore,” says Kevin Ashton, a technology analyst at Cannacord Genuity. “This market is wide open; it’s a nascent market.”
Some companies in the north-east of England in this field are long-established innovators, such as Petards, which specialises in surveillance and security in the transport, emergency services and defence sectors. Its eye-Train monitoring and public information systems are now installed on 5,000 trains around the globe.
A newer entrant is Newcastle-based Nomad Digital. It established its name as a world leader in passenger wireless technology and data networks for the transportation sector, and has rail customers across the globe, including India and China.
“Our rail customers are pushing for applications where the business goal is a mixture of increased service levels, reduced costs and improved security,” it says.
Even on mundane local bus routes, CCTV is about more than reassuring passengers. An important role for CCTV cameras is to reduce fraudulent accident insurance claims by passengers and to monitor bus drivers’ performance.
On rail services, video content analysis is developing techniques such as virtual trip wires, which can set off an alarm if somebody falls off the platform, or detect the difference between a trespasser on the railway line or a workman in a high visibility jacket.
Other technologies, such as satellite navigation and radio frequency ID are also opening up monitoring possibilities. Inevitably, airports are a focus for transportation surveillance technology.
Sedgefield-based Kromek, a Durham university spin-out whose technology is based on cadmium telluride crystals – semiconductors that act as radiation detectors – is a market leader in digital x-ray technology that can detect narcotics and explosives in liquids.
Its scanning equipment is being trialled globally. Kromek recently acquired California-based Nova, an imaging and radiation detection specialist.