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You've probably noticed video cameras popping up everywhere you look, silently watching everything from intersections to building perimeters and construction sites. The reason is simple: It's a lot less complicated and less expensive than it used to be to set up and use video cameras to monitor a facility or jobsite.

Today they can show you more, in more detail and more different places, than you might imagine. Understanding these enhanced capabilities can help you apply the technology to your operation, too.

Three factors have led to this new-found effectiveness. The switch from analog to digital equipment has reduced system costs and has simplified installation and setup. It also has increased the working range of such systems: Going digital and tying into the Internet has made it possible to view images from almost anywhere.

Digital cameras have also improved dramatically. Once prohibitively expensive and offering substandard images, today they offer excellent image quality at prices that are competitive with, and sometimes better than, analog cameras. As a bonus, digital control has simplified the inclusion of pan, tilt, and zoom features so they are almost the norm rather than expensive extras.

Just as important is the way clever system integrators are combining digital cameras and software applications to enable onscreen viewing and control, as well as programmed surveillance. They take the technology from being a do-it-yourself experiment to operating as a highly dependable and useful tool.

Hackensack, N.J.-based EarthCam offers a wide variety of cameras and systems for the construction industry.

The key to picking the right system is knowing what you want it to do. If you want to monitor what's going on at your batch plant in real time, consider streaming video. To document activity at a jobsite, select time-lapse photography with a high-definition camera.

Picking the right version

Also consider project duration and environment. If it's a three-year project in a northern city, then a metal camera housing is best. Similarly, a camera in a dusty environment can be equipped with a wiper to maintain clear vision.

EarthCam's top-of-the-line ConstructionCam features an all-weather, durable housing equipped with heater, fan, and windshield wiper (which you can control from your browser). It can pan 360 degrees and tilt 116 degrees above or below horizontal and zoom in to 220x. It also accepts 64 preset positions, all of which means it can be programmed to keep watch on a huge amount of turf.

ConstructionCam Lite is the company's most affordable robotic cam. It is housed in an acrylic dome, pans 340 degrees and zooms to 26x. The ConstructionCam has a solar power option available, and both have wireless options.

The software interface is what actually makes the video images useful. EarthCam's Control Center 6.0, which is purchased separately as part of a support and maintenance package, provides camera control, an image archive player, security and administration tools, and other functions. It is available in three editions—streaming video, megapixel, and lite series—and can be used to control more than one camera.

For more information, visit www.earthcam.net or the demo gallery from camera manufacturer Axis at www.axis.com. One of my favorites is the time-lapse record of a 24-hour concrete pour in Southern Florida. You can see it at www.theconcreteproducer.com.