Clever cameras in the classroom: Smart cameras run apps, detect license plates

Gun-toting students, bullies, drug dealers and even tornados are just a few of the threats children may face these days at school -- leading some districts to turn to a new breed of ultrasmart surveillance cameras that run iPhone-style apps, can read license plates, and even talk back to misbehaving students.

During the tornadoes that touched down in Southern Indiana on March 2, video cameras installed at the West Clark Community schools were so resilient that they remained installed and operating in the gym and parking lot while the tornado passed through -- providing the unique documentation of the incident seen above.

It’s not their strength but their smarts that really impress, however.

“We’re moving closer to the CSI side and running far away from your father’s old tube TV set-quality from the 70s and 80s,” Fredrik Nilsson general manager of video camera maker AXIS, told

AXIS invented networked cameras 15 years ago and is known for top-of-the-line surveillance cameras for defense and security purposes, with modern devices far removed from the black and white footage of the analog Stone Age.

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Schools have been keen to leverage the latest in surveillance technology, arguing the benefits of these clever cameras outweigh any privacy concerns.

In fact, schools are far ahead of the rest of the country: Approximately 75 percent of new video cameras installed last year in the U.S. were analog; about 50 percent of those added to schools are digital models with built in Internet connections, pixel-perfect pictures, the ability to record heat signatures and more.

Oh, and there’s an app for that, as well.

The AXIS ARTPEC chip embedded in some of the company’s cameras lets software developers create applications and analytics to run inside the camera itself -- making the company’s cameras the iPhones of the surveillance world.

High-quality IP video footage, whether of a natural threat like a tornado or a student shooter, can be a critical tool after threat incidents to review how the school responded.

And in the event of a Columbine-type incident, schools can enable remote access to live video for faculty and law enforcement, allowing them to know the location and movement of a shooter as well as the location and status of victims.

The recent release of the film Bully has focused attention on intimidation of students. In such cases, analog cameras can capture only blocky images that make it difficult to identify culprits. School staff can now view digital camera footage on an HDTV to not only identify faces, but clothing and license plates as well.

A camera can then identify students who ought to be in class and alert an authority, who can use the built in speaker to talk to that student -- and order him back to class.

The Connetquot Central School District of Islip, N.Y., deployed a district-wide surveillance system in 2010 to centrally monitor all 11 schools, offering Suffolk County Police Department the ability to temporarily access the cameras. Connetquot reported a 60 percent reduction in vandalism after installing its system.

Utica Community Schools, the second largest district in Michigan, are putting footage in real time on screens in the hallway so that students can see they are being filmed -- a deterrent to nefarious behavior.

The University of Texas at San Antonio uses cameras that capture license plates; the school reports greatly reduced incidence of theft on campus, as well as improved safety.

The Chippewa Valley Schools in Detroit leverage modern video system so teachers can focus on teaching rather than incident investigation. Principals and assistant principals can watch multiple cameras simultaneously from their desktop computers -- and do more with their limited resources than patrolling hallways.

To tackle theft in school, some districts are even utilizing technology similar to that used for terrorist threats, which can pinpoint a suspicious package representing a potential bomb threat.

Using Smart Search Video Management System software, schools like Wyoming’s Cody High School solve theft in minutes by drawing a virtual box on the screen around say, a laptop that was stolen. The system will detect when it disappeared by recognizing when the pixels change in the scene.

Good coverage for an average school could involve 100 to 250 cameras with typical fixed IP cameras used by schools can range from $400 to $1000 and for movable PTZs from $1000-$2500. HDTV PTZs with digital zoom can run about $600.

In all, a surveillance video system for a school can range from $100,000 to $500,000, but often school systems can be the result of government grants.

The initial investment for higher resolution, feature-rich IP-based surveillance system may be higher, but the results can provide a net savings – and either way, can a dollar amount be put on keeping children safe?

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie