I’ve been looking at security cameras recently, in part because my home owners association needs to upgrade the system which monitors some of the amenities. We want motion detection features and, obviously, remote access to view live cameras and recorded footage without having to go to the location. Unfortunately there’s a gap in the market which seems to be exactly where I’m looking. Cisco Meraki may have just stepped in and bridged that gap.
The Problem Space
Over the last few years, a wide variety of small security cameras have become available, any of which which at first glance would appear suitable. These include products like Netgear’s Arlo, Amazon’s Blink, Google’s Nest Cam and more. After some brief testing, however, I’m a little less convinced that they are what we’re looking for. It sounds silly to say it, because it’s not like this is something they hide, but these products are all aimed at the home user market. Dashboard logins are single user, based on an email address and the web interfaces may not work well for much more than five or so cameras. The camera choices are fairly limited, and as they’ll be streaming their feeds over WiFi to the cloud, it’ll be important to have good, fast wireless coverage and enough internet bandwidth to sustain all the streams in parallel, something which scales progressively less well as the number of cameras increases. On the up side, all of the solutions have a mobile app available.
Commercial camera offerings, in contrast, tend to revolve around a vast range of expensive cameras which are hard wired (usually to the network, as IP cameras are the most common option now). The recorded footage is stored on an on-premises Digital Video Recorder (DVR) and there will be a desktop application available to access it.
Meraki In The Middle
Somewhere in the middle of the products above we find Meraki, who is selling what appear to be some really neat security cameras. From what I can see, the Meraki cameras in fact lean towards the high end in terms of quality, but Meraki has brought with it the same underlying cloud-managed simplicity with which it has approached wireless, switching and security. To be clear, Meraki has been selling its “MV” security cameras for a while, but with the second generation models it has significantly upped its game, and it is these cameras I am discussing. The second generation cameras have model numbers which end in the number two (2), e.g. MV-32.
How is Meraki Different?
The second generation MV cameras are unusual in that they are built using a mobile-grade Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, so there is a lot of processing power embedded within the camera unit; far more than typical security cameras. The processor is partnered with 256GB of solid state storage which is used to store raw video and image metadata. This is probably the biggest differentiator between the MV cameras and almost every other camera out there; there is no network DVR or NVR (Network Video Recorder) needed, and no constant stream of video data being sent to the cloud, because each camera independently stores its recorded footage locally. This also means that even if the network goes down, footage is still being recorded so long as the device has power. When the user wants to view footage, it is retrieved (by the Meraki dashboard) from the camera as needed.
Each camera does, however, generate a network stream of about 50Kbps to the internet, containing metadata to be stored on the Meraki servers for use by the dashboard.
Movement Triggered Footage Retention
In order to save storage, it’s normal to only store security video footage when movement was detected in the frame. This is typically implemented by keeping the most recent 10-20 seconds of video buffered at all times, and when movement is detected, that buffer is written to storage followed by the live footage that follows it (usually stopping after a fixed period of time). This is an effective mechanism but it’s not unusual to miss events because the movement on screen was not big enough to trigger recording, and thus that footage was electronically thrown away.
Meraki has approached this problem in an ingenious way. The MV cameras store all video footage for a configurable number of days, while storing the movement triggers as metadata. After that, video that was not marked with a movement trigger is deleted, leaving behind only the movement-triggered video. This allows a few days for the user to look into any footage from those days before being limited to detected movement.
12v PoE Puck
For installations where the Meraki cameras are replacing existing cameras which have 12/24v power lines (but no Ethernet) run to them, Meraki sell a small ‘puck’, a low voltage power adaptor, which converts 12/24v DC to Power Over Ethernet (PoE) to power the camera. Thankfully the cameras also have 802.11ac wireless built in, so the lack of wired connectivity isn’t such a problem, and apart from the 50Kbps metadata stream, video is only sent over the wireless network when the video is requested.
Local Image Analysis
The Snapdragon processor built in to the second generation cameras allows the MV series to perform image analysis on-device, including motion detection and person identification. The cameras can also generate motion heat maps, which can be useful in public / commercial environments in order to identify patterns of movement.
Stop Motion Images
When viewing a motion trigger event, the system can automatically overlay a series of images showing the moving item entering the trigger zone and leaving it, in a series of steps. Thus if a person triggers the motion sensing, the dashboard will show multiple images of that person (with small gaps between them as the person moves) all overlaid into a single picture. It it hard to describe, but it presents an immediate and effective overview of the movement event without having to scroll back and forward in the video.
Search By Movement in a Zone
Select an area of the camera’s fields of view, and the Meraki can search for any movement triggers found in that area. This is an incredibly fast way to find very specific movement. Imagine that a purse has been stolen; if we know where the purse was, a motion search could be run looking for any movement at that location, significantly speeding up the process of finding the correct event.
More to Come
In good news (for me), Meraki has given me two cameras to play with. I’m particular excited by the MV32 which is an 8MP fisheye lens with 180 degree coverage, and the ability to unwarp the fisheye footage within the browser and (effectively) retrospectively point and zoom the camera to an area of interest. The footage we saw demonstrated was impressive quality, and showed no signs of having come from a 180 degree fisheye. When I get a chance to test them, I will be posting further.
Cisco Meraki presented at Tech Field Day Extra at Cisco Live US, 2019. Please see my Disclosures page for more information.