On the technological edge of perimeter security

On March 13, at London’s Heathrow Airport, a Sri Lankan national scales a 15-foot fence and dashes across the path of a Boeing 777. The man is arrested without further incident, but the event triggers a massive security alert – the next day, Queen Elizabeth II is scheduled to open Heathrow’s new, $9 billion Terminal 5.

Six days later, at his company’s ten-acre test range outside Ottawa, Brian Rich, the president of Senstar-Stellar, points out the variety of fencing and intrusion detection systems that could have either prevented the Heathrow incident or alerted authorities to the potential threat before it happened. Registering annual sales around $70 million with parent company Magal Ltd., Senstar-Stellar is far and away the world leader in outdoor perimeter security systems, with its closest competitor achieving annual sales in the $15-20 million range.

While he did not have the facts at hand to speak directly about the Heathrow intrusion, Rich said it pointed out a worldwide need for perimeter security at airports. “A general lesson, of course, is that perimeters at airports are vulnerable and that is generally an open area in the security of the airport industry. There currently is no widespread legislation or requirement to have perimeter security at airports, that I’m aware of,” he said.

As any air passenger knows, inside security at airports everywhere in the world now must meet strict international standards. “Clearly, though, the focus has been for some years now on trace explosives detection, biometrics, access control and those systems are very well done at airports actually,” Rich acknowledged, “but there hasn’t been the focus on, or conclusion yet, to the perimeter.”

What the Heathrow event did illustrate, in Rich’s opinion, was the fact that airport perimeter intrusions are indeed possible, even at airports considered global strategic assets. “I think the world’s quite fortunate that there have been relatively few breaches of airport perimeters. Our industry as a whole is often driven by incidents like this,” Rich said.

The challenge of securing an airport perimeter scales with the airport itself. The perimeters of the world’s very largest airports may be as long as 40 kilometres. “Our largest [airport] installation to date is a middle eastern airbase. I think it’s 27 kilometres, the largest single installation of buried cable sensor technology,” Rich said. “Our largest installation, if you consider Magal, our owner, would be the ‘seam line’ in Israel. They’ve done 125 kilometres of the seam line, the separation line between Palestine and Israel.”

Rich believes Senstar-Stellar maintains a competitive edge across its product line. “No one in the world does it in the size or the volume that we do. We’re the largest because we’ve got the largest array of technologies available, the largest array of products.” For each product, he said, there is probably competition, but in some cases there may be only one company with a similar offering. “There is another electrostatic field sensor, but there really is only one competitor in the world and our technology has been updated and is much more advanced at this point,” he said.

Making sensors work in the outdoor environment is the hardest challenge. To maintain uninterrupted coverage with a low false alarm rate, outdoor sensors must face up to extreme environmental conditions like temperature change, precipitation of all kinds, birds and animals, seismic disturbances, broken terrain and traffic.

“The environmental challenges have not been solved completely yet,” Rich conceded. “This technology is moving more slowly than your home computer industry, I would say, or consumer electronics, but it is still moving. There are no sensors that work perfectly outdoors yet.”

The real perimeter security challenge, of course, is the intelligent, informed and motivated intruder. “When you’re trying to detect a stealthy human being, one that has knowledge of the sensor and will orient himself or clad himself or have aids to help him breach that sensor, you have to be pushing the technology as far as you can to make sure you detect that person, while you reject the birds flying by, the rainfall, everything else that might happen,” Rich said.

The Senstar-Stellar range may be the largest and most comprehensive privately owned outdoor perimeter security test field in the world. It demonstrates the entire range of security systems, from the totally invisible buried cable to the intimidating maximum security barrier, and everything in between.

As Rich said, “in our industry, this is really what separates the men from the boys, having a test field like this where you can do what you say you do in full scale, 365 days a year. The sensors are all out here, more than 30 of them and they’re all working 24 hours a day every day.” Rich is satisfied that the Ottawa climate is varied enough to duplicate the world’s harshest conditions. “We go from minus 40 to almost plus 40, I guess,” with periods of extreme moisture and aridity.

The company’s OmniTrax buried cable can run 800 metres between processors and locate an intrusion across the perimeter line to within one metre. “It’s basically a guided radar system that follows a buried cable over terrain up and down hills and around corners,” Rich explained. “There are actually two cables, a receiver and a transmitter. We are unique in that we will put the two cables in the same jacket, so we have one trench to dig with the two cables together.” Because they are completely invisible, potential intruders are at an immediate disadvantage.

Electrostatic sensors meet the need for tall detection zones to meet nuclear industry regulatory requirements. “You need a volumetric system to detect targets in a specified volume of space. It has to be three or four metres and there aren’t really any other technologies that will provide detection one metre deep and four metres high unless you stack a large number of single devices.”

Sensors mounted directly on fencing can detect the difference between cutting and climbing, through sound or vibration. And the system can be tuned to minimize false alarms.

Rich said customers are often motivated by general concerns about terrorism, privacy or vandalism but sometimes the decision to install a system comes down to something as immediate and practical as insurance rates.

About 90 people work for Senstar-Stellar in Ottawa and the company has customers around the world, in sectors where physical property or human beings need protection, or where people or property need to be confined: VIP protection, border control, correctional facilities, oil and gas, and nuclear facilities.

With 25 years of experience and customers in more than 75 countries, Senstar-Stellar believes it has the perimeter protection technology to protect its lead in the marketplace for years to come.

Author: Richard Bray from the March/April 2008 issue published

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