On Early Prototyping and the Future of AI with Spectur’s Founder

Spectur’s intelligent camera systems today protect people and property on thousands of professional sites, but these systems came to life in a garden-shed-turned-lab in Perth. We recently spoke with founder Richard Wilkins, whose vast background in electronic engineering, telecommunications, radio communications and product development saw him creating the very first Spectur prototypes.

It all began after Richard sought a security solution for his home and couldn’t find what he wanted. Remote video feeds weren’t common in 2009 – much less a ‘live view’ facility via phone or algorithm-led alarms – so Richard got busy creating his own solution. With past experience working in the radio technical branch of the Australian Royal Navy, leading the Electronics School of Avionics and specialising in mobile communications, he was uniquely equipped for the task.

The goal was to create an autonomous monitoring system.

Richard set to work developing a security system that wouldn’t require someone constantly viewing a screen in a remote place, watching for a burglar entering the ‘picture’. Most existing systems relied on current loop technology over telephone landlines; “An intruder walking past a PIR, for example, would cause the current loop to break and a monitoring station would receive the alarm offsite.” These options were expensive to install and utilise, and personnel had to travel to the site to assess the situation or deter crime. Instead, Richard developed a motion detection algorithm, designed to generate an active alarm when a person was detected in the viewing area and send real-time imagery of the site. “We also introduced the pre-roll feature, which captured images a few seconds before the alarm event.”

Video systems that did exist at the time sent continuous grainy low-resolution video, as it was practically impossible to send high resolution video over existing domestic data networks. To enable clear information in real time, Richard instead chose to send high resolution images as fast as a network could manage.

Specialist expertise proved key during product development.

The technology Richard wanted to develop wasn’t directly available back then; at least in the form that was needed. Finding a suitable image sensor that would be suitable for low light and yet have high resolution was one challenge, as these requirements were almost diametrically opposed. Another challenge was finessing the right processor and power board with code, all to be neatly housed. A capable engineering contractor Richard had worked with previously provided expertise on several of these aspects. Initially a firm was hired in India to develop the software, however the complexity of the code led Richard to look locally. “All of these issues were solved with the very able assistance of a gentleman in Melbourne with a PhD in electronic engineering and an encyclopaedic knowledge of cameras, image sensors, encryption methods, servers, both local and cloud based and many other skills.” This gentleman is Nick Le Marshall, who is today the Research and Development Manager at Spectur.

It was an intentional decision to focus on solar-powered solutions and remote site solutions.

“Like a lot of businesses in the development stage, we attempted to try and solve every problem of security by designing different types of systems… you know, looking for the holy grail,” Richard says. “Fortunately we took the advice of a very successful entrepreneur who had made his fortune in Silicon Valley. His advice was simple, yet profound and I paraphrase…stick to one product until you have made it the best there is, only then, expand on that concept. We had built some prototype solar-powered rigs with moderate success; but it was then we decided to narrow our focus and properly concentrate our energies to develop a highly reliable solar-powered platform.”

Early applications proved highly successful.

One early client managed a large warehouse complex in Perth, where a very expensive road train had recently been stolen. Although the site had regular mobile patrols, it was impossible for security personnel to be everywhere at all times. After just a few weeks of having a Spectur camera installed, an offender raced off with a very expensive truck and trailer. “The police were notified and shown real footage of the event, resulting in the thief being apprehended in time to save the truck from its inevitable fate. Very satisfying indeed,” Richard says.

Another early client installed a Spectur camera to monitor their farm’s main entry gate. “A ute turned up one night and two young men walked towards the gate to cut the chain,” Richard explains. “The camera’s audible alarm shrieked out a warning and the floodlight illuminated the scene, and a great series of images were recorded and sent off site. The young men fled, but returned two hours later armed with a shotgun. The camera once again did its duty but was interrupted (permanently) by several shotgun pellets. Needless to say, the police were very interested in the footage that was captured of the shotgun incident, this footage of course being sent off site. The young men assumed they were destroying the evidence by ‘taking out’ the camera…they were not!”

There were several technical challenges to resolve to ensure Spectur’s cloud-based, solar-powered solutions would be reliable.

Some of the key issues included maintaining image quality, night vision, battery life in deep winter, connectivity bandwidth and encryption. Secondary issues included how to reliably push remote software upgrade to the systems and how to transmit images to the monitoring centre – at times with very limited reception.

Australia has been an ideal proving ground, with its diverse operating conditions.

As Richard says, “Heat is the enemy of electronics and is best understood by referring to a law which states that for every 10°C of temperature increase, component reliability decreases by 50%. West Australia was our proving ground and because solar systems have to be in the open sun, the ambient temperature can be in the low 50s. Efficiency of solar panels also decreases by 20% or more at these temperatures. Clearly, mechanical design of reliable solar-powered camera systems must take into account these factors.”

Not only that, but high rainfall, high humidity and winter weather each demanded their own set of technical considerations.

Richard sees endless possibilities with this flexible technology and programmable AI.

He mentions a few examples; of using wireless sensors to protect expensive mobile plant equipment; the potential to detect Hi-Vis shirts and helmets (or lack thereof) on a building site; and for surveillance of Australia’s vast coastlines using 3G, 4G, 5G or satellite modems. “Spectur camera systems could be regarded as solar-powered data collection and dissemination centres in which all sorts of information needed by say, Government or business can be securely collected and dispatched to the ‘cloud’.”

Thanks to Richard’s expertise and lateral thinking, Spectur’s solutions today are impressively cost-effective, deployable within hours, expandable with a range of third-party systems and capable of exceptional imaging and detection ranges.

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