Video surveillance over power lines: yes, it's possible

Video surveillance over power lines: yes, it's possible

Summary: This is the second of a three-part series where our own David Gewirtz tests and installs a full-perimeter, Internet-centric, mobile-enabled video surveillance system. In this installment, David spotlights a neat new technology.

TOPICS: Security, DIY

UPDATE: Part 3 is available

Yesterday, I discussed the basic premise behind building an Internet-centric, mobile-enabled, full-perimeter video surveillance system. I mentioned that I'd looked at a product from LOFTEK and discarded it, and then found a product from Logitech that had some promise.

In this article, I'll discuss the Logitech Alert system and then, in a follow-on article, I'll formally review the product. Logitech was kind enough to provide me with a full system, so I went out and hired an electrician to install it.

In fact, that's a great place to begin our story.

"No way that's gonna work." That's what my electrician Jerry said when I'd described the Logitech Alert system. Jerry's been a really big asset here at Camp David, installing all our networking cables in the attic, and completely rewiring what was a fire hazard fixer-upper into what's now part small data center and part family abode.

He looked at me with that particular "you must be kidding" look of dubiousness that skilled tradespeople often reserve for those of us who are engineers, and yet can't be trusted not to blow ourselves up.

I could see him looking more and more doubtful the more I described the product. Where he lost all faith in this scheme of mine was when I told him the video signal would travel over the power lines. Actually, that's not strictly true. He looked at me with that particular "you must be kidding" look of dubiousness that skilled tradespeople often reserve for those of us who are engineers, and yet can't be trusted not to blow ourselves up.

What got him really shaking his head was when I told him that not one, but six video signals would have to travel over the house's power, across phases, and from the farthest reaches of the perimeter to a central network node, which was then connected to my router.

When I told him I was intending to pump color, 720p HD video across the power lines, he shook his head one last time and gave me a homework assignment: "Go hook it all up inside and let me know if it works. If it works, then we'll talk."

Let's talk about the system.

The Logitech Alert system can be set up either inside or outside. If it's set up inside, you can deploy up to six cameras, what are essentially glorified webcams. I didn't do the inside thing because I have no desire to monitor the inner workings of my inner sanctum. The system can also be set up with a mix of inside and outside cameras.

I chose all outside cameras. Unlike the LOFTEK, they're fixed view only. You point them. That's what you see. On the plus side, they have a pretty wide view (135 degrees), so they do see quite a bit (although it can look pretty fisheye-ee if you set the widest angle possible).

Each camera comes with a long, thin Ethernet-like cable and what looks like a large power brick. This is actually the video-over-powerline interface that is at the core of the system's communication. Each camera also comes with an SD card, so if communication is interrupted, the card holds recent video.

At the core of the system is a HomePlug network device that plugs into the wall (for power and to capture the video signals). It also plugs into your router, so you'll want to locate this near your network interface. It's pretty much plug and forget, so where you locate the master controller isn't strictly relevant.

The system is controlled by either a Windows or Mac application which is used for setting up, configuring, and watching the cameras. There is also a Web application and both an iOS and Android app that lets you view your cameras from anywhere on the Internet.

My first test

For my first test, I had to unpack everything, install the wiring (it's a unscrew-and-plug-in affair), find six free wall sockets at far corners of my house, and then connect the master controller to my router.

I didn't pay any real attention to where the cameras pointed. All I wanted to do was make sure I could actually talk to them over the building power, and that the basic concept worked.

So, I plugged it all in, saw that the cameras each had indicator lights that were turned on, powered up the master controller software on my Windows 8 machine, and ... nothing ... for about two minutes.

The control software had grid squares for each of the six cameras and all six squares were empty. Then after a few minutes, one-by-one, they all just showed up. Each blinked in. All the cameras had connected and were sending video.

Granted, everything was upside down and a bit wonky, but that wasn't the point. The cameras were able to send video over the internal power lines, and — in what was a completely pleasant surprise — it all just turned on and worked.

The only odd thing was that each camera was sending a black and white signal. After a few minutes, I found the update control screen, and — holding my breath — told the system to update the cameras. Each camera obediently updated its firmware, and I suddenly had color, pretty-much-HD video coming from six zones inside my house.

I sent Jerry the electrician a note and scheduled a time. Still doubtful, we made an appointment for him to come over, but he ended with "I'll believe it when I see it."

Stay tuned. Tomorrow, I'll review the product in depth. Does it hold up to my initial positive impressions? You'll have to wait and see.

Here's a promo video about the product from Logitech. Wait until you read my review before deciding if this is for you or not. The product has both strengths and weaknesses.

Topics: Security, DIY


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • $$$ ???

    How much ?
    • check the logitech website

      Outdoor system is $350 for the master system with one camera $280 for additional cameras
      Indoor system is a bit less
  • Power line networking goes back to the mid 1970s

    at least in Japan.

    Speed has drastically improved for local networks as most communications signals get blocked at the transformer.

    Note for privacy... Many places have multiple houses connected to a single transformer, and I don't know the amount of isolation between houses. So it may be possible that a signal from one house could propagate to all houses connected to that distribution point.
    • Very good point

      This is a single-family dwelling, but I definitely had X10 issues back in the apartment days.
      David Gewirtz
  • Old Tech

    I don't understand why you are surprised it works. Broadband Over Powerlines has been around the past 10 years. It's a relatively simple technology. It's always worked well on home wiring.

    It was proposed to be used to provide broadband to rural users that had no alternative except satellite. That did not go so well. The broadband signal would not pass through power transformers.

    Reliability can be a problem because the transceiver is subject to spikes from inductive loads such as electric motors and lightning.
  • price???

    Ebay US seller $155 each (May 23, 2013)
    Rather high in my book but it's security & convenience in one little package.
    IF and WHEN i win a lotto, . . .
  • Been doing this for years and follow the link to current picture.
    This is one of several IP cameras watching my property (and home based office). Each uses a powerline adapter to connect to my LAN. All are controlled by VisionGS running on an otherwise unused notebook sitting on top of a bookshelf in my office.
    The web is only one output. I also have live video from anywhere I can tap the Internet, and motion detection emails. Motion detection only looks at the points I have set up in the frame so I don't get an email for every car that simply drives by my home. Motion detection events are also pushed to my NAS for longer term storage.

    I'm surprised I'm one step ahead of David on this one!
    Jim Johnson
    • That's why I like our readers!

      You folks are always ahead of the game. Makes it feel more like a team effort when we learn new things. Thanks for the cool link.
      David Gewirtz
    • IP webcams with UPS and 3G

      I've been using cheap mobile phones as IP webcams since windows mobile 6.
      they have built in battery, SD card and SIM card so it can even fallback on mobile for the data if power lines or ADSL lines/routers are cut by the crooks.
      Programmable motion sensing, audio recording, alerts, and WiFi access.
      I've got two of them being charged off $40 solar panel so it is power independent.
      Plenty of webcam capable phones for under $50 each.
      Recycle those old phones!
      • IP webcams with UPS and 3G

        Warboat :
        Can you provide more information on the internals of the solution you mention ?
        - Software product on the phone
        - webcam capable phones (brand and model) or minimal requirments
        - software Product for the backend
        • Phone webcams

          Phone software: Tinycam on windows mobile, IP Webcam on Android
          webcam phones: HTC Touch Diamond 2 (Topaz), HTC Touch HD (Blackstone). The good thing about these two models is you can boot Widows Mobile normally or boot Android from SD as there has been several Android projects for these series of HTC phones with similar hardware specs. HTC TD2 has common problem with the touchscreen so they are usually cheap to obtain. The touchscreen is not important as an IP webcam except for setting up ( I temporary attach a good touchscreen for setup). Almost any native Android phone will work with IP Webcam app.
          software backend: I was using Wepcam XP on a windows mobile device, and Webcam 7 on windows to record but you can use anything that will record from a web stream on Android, Linux, Windows etc. You can view and control these webcam apps from any web browser.
  • Does the Logitech powerline system play well with others?

    I am already using powerline networking (Netgear XAV5001/4 & XAVN2001 WiFI extender) so am wondering if the Logitech cameras would successfully plug into the existing network. FWIW the XAV5004 4 port switch provides excellent media streaming (ripped DVDs and Netflix, have not tried BluRay rips). This despite the fact that my AFCI breakers cause a 50% hit to the data rate. For those interested, the site has a good writeup on the effects of different types of AFCI breaker on powerline networking.
  • Powerline Networking

    There seams to be quite a lot of new generation power-line networking devices on the market right now. Just a few years back LAN power-line devices although available were hard to find and most limited to only one set for point to point use only. Now you can get special power-line switches to control multiple outlets all around a building, that also include WiFi access point devices. It looks like this video surveillance unit is just cutting down a little more cabling by taking an IP network style camera and linking it to a power-line networking device combined with a PoE unit. In the past I have seen an IP camera plugged into a POE unit and that POE unit plugged into a LAN over power-line unit by by both its power plug and the pass-through un-powered LAN cable coming out of the PoE that was used to view a front door area. While a lot of these devices do seem to still be a little expensive, the savings in not having to pay to have more LAN cables installed can end up saving you money in the long run, especially is some modern houses/apartments that have some thick sound proof floors between upper and lower stories that also tend to block WiFi signals.