NEA will use cameras to detect illegal smoking - here's how it could work

NEA will use cameras to detect illegal smoking - here's how it could work

thermal camera detect smoking
A thermal camera system detecting a person smoking. (Photo: Transmex Systems International via Dahua)

SINGAPORE: The thermal cameras that could be deployed to detect smoking in prohibited areas would likely be able to capture high definition images of your face from as far as 100m away, an industry expert said.

These pan-tilt-zoom cameras can also track offenders on the move and operate both day and night, said Mr Kenneth Tan, sales director at Transmex Systems International (TSI), a security solutions provider that deals in surveillance systems for law enforcement.

In her closing speech following a parliamentary debate on the Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) (Amendment) Bill on Sep 10, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor said the National Environment Agency (NEA) is exploring "the use of thermal cameras to deter indiscriminate smoking".

"These cameras are equipped with heat-detection capabilities that can detect smoking activity and can be operated remotely," she added. "When deployed, these cameras will be able to capture images of the smoking infringement and facilitate NEA’s investigations."

READ: MPs, citing dangers of secondhand smoke, want to curb smoking in homes

It is unclear when the thermal cameras will be deployed. NEA has invited contractors that provide these services to submit tenders, and the agency is still evaluating the submissions, Dr Khor had said.

In response to queries, NEA said the cameras will be deployed in residential areas and other areas with "persistent feedback on smoking issues". This includes corridors, lift lobbies and staircase landings, Dr Khor added.

"The principle is very simple," Mr Tan said of the technology behind the thermal cameras. "The moment you have got some temperature difference, in this case the lit cigarette, the camera will highlight the area, zoom in and capture it."

Using temperature difference as a "trigger" is also effective for detecting smoking, he said, as the heat from a cigarette "sticks out like a sore thumb" against the far cooler surroundings.

"Essentially, what they want to know is that there’s this incident and they want to capture the (offender's) face," he added. "It's no use if your camera is too far away."

In terms of range, NEA is likely to go for anything between 20m and 100m, Mr Tan said. In this range, the images captured are also clear enough for identification.

Anything farther will pose challenges in terms of the camera's size and panning capabilities.

smoking facial capture
TSI's surveillance system can capture anything that moves. (Photo: Aqil Haziq Mahmud)

At TSI's showroom in Bukit Merah, Mr Tan demonstrated a similar system – triggered by movement instead of heat – that was deployed 30m above the building's car park.

The cameras in this system managed to capture the faces of every pedestrian and motorcyclist who entered the car park, even as they were on the move.

At night, the cameras are smart enough to adjust their aperture settings to allow more ambient light to come in, Mr Tan said. "In Singapore, the street lighting is very bright," he added.

ENFORCEMENT AND DEPLOYMENT

When it comes to enforcement, Mr Tan said it is possible to link facial recognition capabilities within the system to a national database, allowing authorities to automatically identify offenders and issue them summonses by mail.

However, Channel NewsAsia understands that images captured by the cameras will be used in tandem with other forms of evidence, like public feedback, to investigate and prosecute alleged offences.

Last year, NEA issued more than 22,000 summonses to people smoking in prohibited areas, compared with about 19,000 in 2016. Those caught smoking in a prohibited area may be fined S$200 or up to S$1,000 if convicted in court.

smoking facial recognition
A smoking detection system can include facial recognition to quickly identify offenders. (Photo: Kenneth Tan)

Smoking is prohibited in an estimated 32,000 locations, including entertainment outlets, bus stops, covered walkways and building entrances.

It is also understood that the cameras will not be deployed at fixed locations, but in different areas about 140 times a year. "We can deploy (the camera) where it is needed," Dr Khor had said in Parliament.

Mr Tan said a self-sufficient, mobile camera that comes with a mid-sized battery can last for about two days before it needs to be recharged.

"In that sense, you need to have a pool of people to do all these setting up, maintaining and dismantling," he added.

CHALLENGES

But there are some limitations to the technology.

"Detection is very straightforward with thermal cameras," Mr Tan said. "But if you want to recognise and capture the face, that imaging part will present challenges."

For example, the clarity of the images will depend on weather conditions. If it was raining or foggy, the faces might not be easily recognisable, he said.

In addition, Mr Tan said the cameras might not be able to differentiate a legitimate smoking offence from, say, "some kids playing around with a lighter".

"The system will capture these triggers, so it might still require officers to go through the footage," he added. "But instead of having to go through 24 hours, maybe it can be condensed to half an hour."

A thermal camera system tracking a heat source. (Photo: Transmex Systems International via Dahua)

And then there's the issue of privacy.

NEA said it will be mindful of this by ensuring that the cameras "focus only on the common corridors, lift lobbies or staircase landings as these are smoking prohibited areas".

"Similar to the deployment of our high-rise littering cameras, there are strict protocols governing the viewing of the footage and only authorised NEA staff and the vendor may handle and view the video footage for official purposes," it added.

"Footage that does not capture any smoking offences will be destroyed after three months."

"KILL TWO BIRDS WITH ONE STONE"

Despite the concerns, Public Hygiene Council chairman Edward D'Silva welcomed the move, saying that it will reduce smoking offences and protect residents from secondhand smoke.

READ: 'Smart lamp posts' in Singapore won't shine light into people's lives

This method of enforcement will also "kill two birds with one stone" by reducing littering, he said, pointing out that some smokers are guilty of throwing their cigarette butts indiscriminately.

"Of course, they will find new spots to smoke, so there has to be enforcement as well as education," he added.

Source: CNA/hz(ms)

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