Control Rooms: Critical alert
The supply of AV into command and control rooms requires the upmost care and attention. Paul Milligan examines the specific requirements of the clients and how technology is slowly changing in this sector.
There are few projects in the AV world where the pressure for everything to work (and stay working) is as keenly felt as it is in the design and installation of a control room. Technology ensures the client has a constant set of eyes on a particular situation, whether it is the traffic or rail for an entire city, or the power supply for a whole region. Those eyes cannot go ‘dark’ for any period of time, as lives could be at risk.
Redundancy has to be built in and downtime (if absolutely necessary) must be extremely limited to ‘hot swaps’. While the sector can add pressure, the need for critical services does makes this sector attractive to system integrators for two reasons: because the business is often critical you don’t see the penny pinching often seen with education or corporate clients, and because it has to work 24/7 365, service contracts are highly valued. This raises the question, does reliability always override the desire for innovation? Have we seen trends we have seen in other markets such LED replacing projection? How important has the technology become ‘behind the screen’ in getting it all working and looking right? We caught up with consultants, integrators and manufacturers who specialise in control rooms to see what changes they are seeing out there in the market.
Are the clients in the command and control sector that much different to say ones in the corporate sector? “They demand 100% reliability, regardless of cost,” says Dan Watson, senior consultant from global firm PTS Consulting. “Other sectors are cost prohibited (i.e. cost normally wins over form), here the client often has no issue finding additional funds if required, especially when compared against cost of failure.” There is another key difference too he adds; “In this sector you get a lot more input from the actual operators/users, opposed to C level or senior management making strategic decisions.” The mission critical nature of a control room always separates these clients from others, but what the users need from their display technology is another key differential, as Paul Waller, development manager from integration group Vega Europe points out. “Unlike teaching and presentation environments where there is often a single fixed content to view, the client is more likely to be inputting several content forms and the associated manipulation within the display environment.”
So what it is that integrators demand from control room products, is it the clarity and detail of the display (which is often viewed from a distance), is it a thin or ‘invisible’ bezel so the whole display appears as uncluttered as possible? or is reliability (measured as MTBF in this sector) the goal above all else? “There are considerations of brightness and resolution to be considered, but also accessibility, overall form factor and power consumption,” says Peter van Dijk, senior business development manager, Mitsubishi Electric. “However, overarching all other considerations is reliability. There simply can be no room for failure. After reliability I would say ease of installation and TCO follows close behind.” Looking at the resolution and clarity of the images you see in a control room, the traditional thinking was always brightness is best, but that’s not the case anymore says Kars Marcelis, marketing manager from Dutch integrator Inter. “Brightness is subordinate, control rooms are usually dark spaces, where the light output of the videowall has to be minimal. The homogeneity of the entire videowall in terms of colours and brightness is far more important.”
The content dictates the technology says Cris Tanghe, business development manager, control rooms, for display manufacturer Leyard/Planar. “Typically more traditional markets such as utilities go for robust, proven solutions where high reliability in 24/7 operation is required. Also, the content is typically SCADA orientated there, so fairly static. This requires a lower resolution, yet full seamless canvas with no such effects as image retention. Hence, rear projection cubes and LED is the preferred solutions. In more video orientated markets such as traffic, resolution and ease of install plays a bigger role.” As these markets are under more price pressure than other control rooms they tend to go with narrow-width LCD videowalls, with the current sweet spot at around 500nits with 2mm bezel.
There are some sectors that require specialist AV skills, like simulation (see InAVate October 2018 issue), so is control rooms another one, and if so, what skills do you need? “Integrators (of control rooms) should be conversant in a number of technologies from display and mounting options, content delivery platforms and also have a grasp of the proprietary delivery platforms clients use to ingest multiple sources. You should also have competent programming resources for bespoke changes to operators functionality, audio integration and room environment controls,” highlights Waller. As well as requiring a good understanding of graphics, resolutions, text and image sizes, sight lines and control systems, Watson adds you also need to understand regulations around ergonomics. Being able to think about the operator’s day-to-needs needs is crucial, “Not only from a workflow point of view, but from an operator well-being point of view. Workflow is not just between the four walls, command and control centres are a small piece of a larger picture. Knowledge of workflow in and out of the command centre is crucial, and intricate knowledge of network and security (cyber and physical) is required too,” he adds.
With so much at stake within a control room scenario, it’s not surprising the demand for reliability far overrides the desire for innovation, but do integrators always have to go for the ‘tried and trusted’? “It’s important to offer the client advice at the consultation/design phase based on what is available and explain the benefits and potential issues with untested or cutting-edge equipment platforms,” says Waller. The inclusion of a ‘hot swap’ within Vega Europe’s service contracts often puts the client’s minds as ease with new technology says Waller. There is always room for innovation says Watson, but “innovation in technology plays only a small part, the largest innovation is how users interact with the technology, how they interact with each other and how they use technology to make day-to-day/routine tasks second nature.”
For years now the default display technology in controls rooms was projection, and more often than not it was rear-projection, because it met the acceptable criteria of price, brightness and form factor. But with the recent growth (and fall in price) of LED, could we see this technology now become dominant? “Narrow pixel pitch LED is rising, although we currently only see it deployed by early adopters. The shift is not happening as fast as it is in the broadcast market for example,” says Tanghe. Cost is clearly one issue, “LED is often discounted by clients based on budget restrictions,’ says Waller, but also on other factors, as highlighted by Watson; “There is a big trade off with environmental limitations, as larger LED tile technology requires more power, more cooling. We have also noticed users/operators tend to struggle with looking at LED display technology for long periods in small to mid-sized control environments. LED is better suited to larger environments.” So projection might be here to stay for the foreseeable future it seems, as backed up by this response from van Dijk; “DLP technology is tried and tested. Users are demanding more ROI on videowalls, which means longer lifetimes and minimal maintenance. This is something DLP does really well.”
With the general growth in video streaming and many control rooms taking in multiple feeds, more is being asked of the processing tools behind the display. Just how important are those tools now becoming to integrators? “Increasing data volumes means more powerful processing,” says van Dijk. “We are seeing the increasing use of edge computing and peer-to-peer network-based approaches to managing screen content, where it’s not one central processor managing the videowall content, but several smaller processors working in tandem to divide the processing tasks amongst themselves.” The growth of more powerful processing tools opens up other issues in the control rooms however. “It is becoming increasingly important to use information flexibly in high resolutions without latency, for example streaming video to external locations/people. How do organisations deal with the safe distribution and store of this information? Opening up APIs is an important aspect for system integrators nowadays, which makes systems easier to collaborate, and create smarter solutions,” says Marcelis. The appeal of this approach is that the processing can match the demands placed upon it. For example, scaling a vector-based SCADA graphic so that it can cover the entire videowalls at the same clarity as when viewed on a single monitor.
Because the control rooms sector features clients in different verticals (security, utilities, traffic etc) does this place added demands of the main display used, its processing and its content? Yes it does says van Dijk; “Security and traffic management wil rely more on camera feeds, while network centres will use SCADA-type network diagrams. Each type of content presents different challenges and will therefore favour the choice of hardware used to display it. Static network graphics shown 24/7 for example would be ill suited to LCD displays.”
Much like the growth of AV over IP, the control room market is now able to get technology to adapt, work together and work smarter says Marcelis. “We have seen the rise of combined control rooms, where the process plant operator also takes on the tasks from security such as door/gate access. We also think there is a strong need for dashboarding, which translates data from different systems into a uniform visual presentation. The reading of this information can be the same in all markets – green is positive, red is negative etc.”
Finally, looking ahead, what changes could advances in technology help to make to control rooms of the future? Marcelis sees AI playing a crucial role: “Information must be flexible to share. We see this path has long been taken with IP technology. Enriching this information can be enhanced by AI and dashboarding. The traditional operator will eventually replaced by data scientists/analysts, as a result of which the work process in the control room changes from reactive to proactive.”