Failure is not an option in command and control

The supply of AV to control rooms presents a series of unique challenges. Steve Montgomery speaks to a cross-section of those involved.

Supply and integration of equipment into control rooms has been extremely important, and lucrative for the AV system integration industry. 

An application sector that provides tremendous opportunities, but is also very demanding.  Control rooms must provide up-to-date information at all times, to the highest level of quality and often in high security applications. 

Equipment must not fail, and in many cases is expected to be sufficiently flexible that it can be changed to meet emergency situations, at the will of the operators and controllers, in situations where, understandably, they cannot apply focus to managing the operation of technology in the system.  

As such, control rooms have their own set of criteria, which differs greatly from other AV applications, and often requires the integration of several third party systems into a single unit; many of which may not be encountered in other fields.  “Control room applications present varied demands from different users across a wide range of market sectors,” says Steve Cotton, vertical head of transport and public sector sales for NEC Display Solutions. 

“Security and emergency services need high video resolution and the ability to zoom in to scrutinize content from numerous inputs and will invest heavily to achieve this.  Transport and manufacturing thus need a lower level of detail for plant and equipment operation and monitoring but may require many input sources; reliability is important but so is achieving a low cost of ownership.  Broadcast demands the highest image quality and HDSDI connectivity.   An area experiencing very heavy government investment at present is cybersecurity.”

“The mission-critical nature of many of the projects means that customers are very demanding,” says Peter van Dijk, business development manager EMEA at Mitsubishi Electric Europe.  “Cost is a factor, of course, but more important is product performance and reliability.  Control rooms are long-term investments, and in an ideal world the equipment used in them would be designed to deliver the same longevity.  With the reliability of modern equipment employing LED light sources, we are now starting to approach a situation where it’s possible to confidently plan for a decade or more of continuous operation with minimal or no maintenance requirement.”

The challenge now is not in building products to last that length of time; it’s in designing products with the versatility to ensure that they remain relevant to the changing needs of the sector.  Customers need to be sure that their chosen manufacturer is going to be around to support that system for a decade or more into the future. This is certainly a factor that favours the large, well-established manufacturers over newer entrants.”

A rise in quality and reliability combined with an increase in size and reduction in bezel width, has enabled LCD screens to emerge as serious contender to the long-established rear-projection unit for videowalls.  Particularly in installations in which space for equipment is limited. 

“NEC has noticed a shift in control room trends where large flat panel displays are now being considered as an effective alternative to traditional rear projection cubes.  This is because they take far less space, typically use less power and need much less in the way of service and part replacement to change,” explains Gareth Gray, Regional Manager for Scotland, Head of Energy Vertical UK, NEC Display Solutions. 

“Over the life of a control room this can make a big impact on the total cost of ownership.  It is also easier to ensure calibration of the wall and create a consistent user experience.”  He also notes a benefit to integrators: “Given that maintenance contracts make up a good percentage of integrators recurring revenue, the benefits of LCD backlit displays means their service agreements are more profitable.”

LED matrix displays have continued to fall in both pitch and cost and are expected to enter this market in significant numbers, but not yet; as Barco’s Hans Dekeyser, VP of strategic marketing I&G believes:  “An average expected lifetime by the client is eight years, but often goes way beyond that.  We see that continuing for videowall products based on rear-projection. This is not proven for any other technology. 

Rear-projection is still the preferred solution for large 24/7 control rooms.  LCD is a confirmed entrant and adaption of the technology for the control room requirements exists.  LCD actually might make the videowall affordable for more control rooms.”   Knowing the fact that LCDs are not necessarily the technology of choice for a control room with primarily static images, some customers will still buy LCD screens and be prepared to exchange them every two years.

Fine-matrix direct LED displays are beginning to be used in very large video-walls.  However, except in some segments of the market in China, the number of installations is still very limited and the price is far higher than viable alternatives.  Van Dijk theorises why LED is not the perfect solution.  “LED tiles are yet to make a serious impact in the control room market and it remains to be seen whether they ever will.  LED is synonymous with high light output, but this is of limited benefit in most control room applications and could actually increase operator fatigue.  Like most display manufacturers we are evaluating the applications for direct view LED in control rooms however LED is an expensive solution and there is still a lot to learn about how reliable the technology will prove in the long-timeframe applications in which we operate.”

Convergence of AV and IT, which is becoming prominent in most AV sectors, has been pertinent to this sector for years. “There is growing need to share combinations of content across networks, securely, to enhance decision making,” Dekeyser points out.   “The combination of operational technologies, information technology and AV has enhanced the delivery of situation monitoring and crisis; enabling better situational awareness and information sharing within an entity and with external organisations.  In addition, control rooms must comply with physical and cyber security requirements, adherence to governmental or corporate requirements and this must be factored into the system during its design phase.”

The ability to transmit high quality video over IP has affected control room systems design.  “A current trend for control rooms, and especially those with large numbers of video signals, is the increasing presence of IP based sources,” says Max Winck, Eyevis.  “Not just IP camera streams but traditional signals, such as video from workstations and web-based sources, can be transferred into IP streams via encoders. This not only eases the necessary cabling, but enables signals to be made available anywhere in the network. So data can be accessed in the control room, in separate crisis rooms or even in other control rooms for collaboration purposes.”

Colin Lemmings sales director at Electrosonic believes that control room design is undergoing a radical shift in complexity: something that integrators must get to grips with.  “In the future, there will be more demand for integration of information between several agencies in real time.  We believe that control rooms will work towards a unified, open architecture platform which can provide the basis for data collection and distribution from disparate agencies.  Another innovative move will be in the use of incident modelling software to help effectively deal with incidents, disasters and accidents.  The software will show various different models for example optional routes, equipment and personnel suited to dealing with an incident.  The controller can examine each option and choose the best response.”

This all has an impact on system integrators, as Ian Abernethy, director of sales UK, Peerless-AV points out: “Installers are looking to partner with manufacturers whose products have a consistent design and work perfectly first time.  In such large-scale, complex application environments where there is no room for error, downtime must be kept to an absolute minimum.  Control room operations are mission and business-critical environments, AV technology must be installer-friendly, offering easy installation, and convenient access for servicing and maintenance.”

A complication that both manufacturers and integrators must contend with is the oft-encounterd extended timescale, Abernathy says: “What distinguishes control room projects from all the rest is the long periods from initial planning to final installation which can take several years. This applies especially to control rooms in power plants that have extremely long design and build cycles”.

Eddie Bance, sales director for Harp Visual concurs: “Some of our installations have a gestation period of four years or more.  Building a good relationship with clients and gaining mutual trust is essential in ensuring that integrators are still involved at the end of the project.  It’s all too easy to fall by the wayside during the course of a long project in which considerable investment in design and specification is required before the fruits of one’s labour are reaped.  A considerable number of projects are cancelled, or radically changed, before completion and everything the integrator has done up to that point can be totally wasted.  You have to be ready and willing to take that risk.”

Motorola’s CommandCentral Aware delivers a unified, real-time operational view for command centre staff that facilitates this objective.  “The software links customers' existing data applications which are typically separated or siloed, and integrates those into an intuitive solution.  This gives personnel faster access to data thus enhancing operational response.  With a clear, real-time operational overview, intelligence can be rapidly shared, ensuring the safety of officers and the public," said Stephen Beach, smart public safety solutions specialist, Motorola Solutions.

As with almost every other application, 4K video distribution and display has the potential to transform the industry, although it has been available for some time, as Dekeyser ascertains: “This sector has been enjoying 4K for many years: a video wall is not limited to the resolution of a panel but inherently is a large pixel space where application can run any native resolution.  An area of development is the handling of 4K content.  Baseband controllers and IP based distribution systems support 4K more widely.”

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