Web-based cameras grow as a jobsite productivity tool

August 11, 2010

Imagine a technology that could help you manage your projects, get you more business, and—should the need arise—get you out of trouble.

That technology is here today, and it's the latest generation of Web camera systems.

Webcams first appeared in the early 1990s at Cambridge University in England as a labor-saving device. There, a group of technicians pointed a webcam at a coffee pot so they knew when the pot was full without having to leave their desks.

A few years later, webcams began to appear on construction sites all over the world. The first systems were pole-mounted units hardwired to a personal computer. They produced static, blurry images and offered very little functionality.

Today's systems, on the other hand, can produce high-resolution snapshots and panoramic images, and can even shoot streaming video. Webcams can pan, tilt, and zoom at the click of a mouse from any computer with Internet access, and can transmit images wirelessly. Some systems can even double as a jobsite weather monitoring station.

One long-time provider of webcams for the construction industry is Hackensack, N.J.-based EarthCam. Founded in 1996 by now-CEO Brian Cury, the company offers more than 500 products and has a steady client base that includes Bechtel, Bovis Lend Lease, Skanska Building USA, and Turner.

"Just as every building is not the same, so too are contractors or developers not the same," says Cury. "We analyze each project and suggest systems that would satisfy their needs."

For a contractor that wants to monitor its jobsites to see if its crews show up for work on time or how many workers are on the site at any given time, Cury suggests a webcam system with real-time streaming video and pan, tilt, and zoom capability.

"And if the project is in a cold climate, we'd recommend all-metal camera housing, especially if it's a long project," says Cury.

Another vendor, Atlanta-based OxBlue Systems, which has been supplying webcam systems to the construction industry since 2001, specializes in contract-free, turnkey systems that are self-installed by the contractor or owner. The system features a fixed, high-resolution camera in a metal enclosure with wireless broadband transmission capability. OxBlue, like other full-service vendors, hosts the computer servers and software that store the images, eliminating the need for additional in-house IT people to manage the system.

Other popular vendors of webcams for the construction industry include StarDot Technologies, Buena Park, Calif., and SilkRoad Technology, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Stardot's systems have been used to monitor the construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver. SilkRoad's Truelook system is specified by the Dormitory Authority of New York State for all projects over $5 million.

Pricing for webcams varies depending on the vendor, complexity of the system, and the amount of support required, with self-installed, pole-mounted systems at the low end.

More productivity, fewer disputes

General contractors are especially fond of webcam technology as a tool to help manage subcontractors and communicate with the owners.

"What GCs find out is that because the owner sees them working, the owner doesn't come down to the jobsite as often," says Cury.

Webcams also permit Building Team members to solve problems while they're away from the jobsite, and even allows teams to bring offsite expertise to bear on a problem just when it's needed. Cury relates a story about a recent courthouse project in Little Rock, Ark.: "The steel guys saw that the steel was being picked up one piece at a time, and they realized that they wouldn't meet their deadline unless they picked up two pieces at a time."

Continuous monitoring of jobsites can also help Building Teams avoid and resolve disputes. Cameras provide a visual record of who entered the site and exactly what construction took place at all times.

In 2005, officials at the University of Kentucky turned to a webcam photo archive of one of its building projects after receiving an exceptionally large bill for a crane rental. The photos substantiated the university's assertion that the crane was not on site during the questionable time period. The vendor withdrew the bill, saving UK thousands in rental fees.

Advances in hardware

A significant advancement in webcam technology is the debut of the megapixel camera. EarthCam offers an 8-megapixel camera that creates up to 40-megapixel panoramic images. Cameras can be fixed or perched atop a robotic arm with pan, tilt, and zoom features. OxBlue offers a 3-megapixel fixed system.

Most vendors offer protective camera housing composed of metal or heavy plastic. Cury recommends metal units for projects in harsh climates. Plastic cases are less expensive and may be sufficient for most jobs.

Another important advancement in webcams is the incorporation of the latest computer chip technology. The same chips that allow programmers to create faster and more detailed videogames and animated movies are giving webcams the horsepower to create and transmit many more images than in the past.

At jobsites where telecommunication lines are not available, Building Teams are using broadband cellular networks to facilitate webcams. Wireless broadband modems located in the camera housing transmit images to a main server.

Linux speeds up image processing

Increased production with the latest webcam systems can be directly attributed to the growth of the Linux operating system. Linux is open-source software that can be programmed and streamlined, then burned onto a chip that's part of the camera system. Cury says EarthCam's strength is in its software.

"We're a software company even though it looks like we're a camera company," says Cury. "We develop all the software and put it on a chip. That software manages the whole process."

Built-in software programs allow webcam users to manage images from multiple webcams and even independent sources (e.g., hand-held digital cameras or camera cell phones), and permit users to change the functionality of cameras. For example, a system can be programmed to switch to an after-hours security mode whereby it focuses on the jobsite gates and trailers instead of on the building.

Webcam vendors
EarthCam www.earthcam.com OxBlue Systems http://oxblue.com/corp/ SilkRoad Technology www.silkroadtech.com
StarDot Technologies www.stardot-tech.com    


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