What Good Is a Wireless IP Camera?

I recently installed a new weather station here at the homestead. With a weather station, it’s always nice to be able to have a picture of the sky to see what the sky looks like, to augment and bring to life the sparse yet functional gauges and dials.

The world of digital image capturing devices is a miasma of terminology, mis-terminology, ignorance and sometimes (at least so it seems) a bit of disingenousity. Go to eBay, type in “IP network camera outdoor”, and there’s at least a zillion, give or take, cameras available from no end of sources, mostly in Asia.

Not being really up on the latest and greatest for IP network cameras, all I really knew going in was what I wanted. The camera needed to be 1) able to withstand living outdoors, in the direct sun and rain; 2) at least 1080p vertical resolution; 3) as sensitive as practical, so I could see an image at night, and hopefully see a few stars; 4) cheap (hard to define); 5) have an included webserver so that with a browser it’d be possible to see the image, and be able to ftp an image on a scheduled (not event) basis to the WUnderground site where my Personal Weather Station data is displayed; and 6) straightforward to configure and tweak. I know, it’s a lot to ask, especially with 4).

One thing that is missing in the above list, and some might wonder why, is the choice of wired vs wireless for the connectivity. After all, it’s the “WirelessJon” website! For this particular installation, it really wasn’t much of a decision to make. A camera takes a significant amount of power to operate (several watts at least). A wireless camera takes at least as much power to operate as an equivalent wired camera. Since a wireless camera would need a source of power, likely the house mains, a cable would still have to be run to supply the power to the camera. If I’m going to the trouble to run wire, I might as well kill two birds with one stone and use that wire to supply connectivity as well. Also, my desired camera might be streaming video on occasion, and that could end up being a significant load on my home wireless network. Finally, ensuring that the wireless coverage from the inside of the house would be good enough for robust connectivity to gadgets on the roof would mean that there’d be a constant unknown as to whether or not a problem in viewing the camera’s image was caused by RF propagation or by some hardware issue. So, like I said, the decision to go wired was pretty straightforward. I have another reason which made it simpler to go this way, which I’ll discuss in a future post on rooftop routers.

As can be imagined, many of the requirements listed above are mutually incompatible. And by “cheap”, I was aiming for somethiing under $100 delivered. Nonetheless, I started my search through Google and eBay as well, working to figure out some of the more esoteric terms (RTSP, DNC, AE, etc.) and attempting to validate things like FTP server and web browser functionality and configurability. A simple thing that I wanted was a scheduled capture on a regular, timed basis – something that doesn’t seem to be offered in most cameras listed on eBay – most offered appear to target the surveillance video market, and the cameras trigger video based upon events like movement in the field of view, or whatever. There were some challenges to figure out what many of the cameras actually did.

Another minor tricky thing was camera sensitivity to light; remember in my wish list I wanted a camera that could even see stars (not just the Sun). I’ve always had in my mind something that I call the PoleCam, which is a camera trained at the north celestial pole and capable of watching the current pole star, Polaris, in its daily orbit around the north pole, Yep, it’s true, Polaris isn’t really at the celestial pole. It’s close (about 3/4 of a degree away, close enough for government work), but it’s not stationary. The ideal camera would allow me to see the movement of Polaris as well. But, I digress: the main purpose of this camera is weather observation.

Cameras come with two different types of image sensor, CCD or CMOS, and a variety of lenses with different angular fields of view (FOV). Some cameras have varifocal lenses, where the “zoom” factor of the image can be changed to accommodate. For me, CCD is the only way to go for improving low-light sensitivity; compare a CCD imager with its equivalent CMOS imager and you’re sure to find that the CCD imager provides a higher quality image with better low-light performance. As far as lenses, it seemed that there were generally 4 mm, 8, mm and 12 mm used on the cameras for sale. Since I’d never bought one of these cameras before, I didn’t know how difficult it’d be to change the lens, so I decided to go with an 8 mm lens which should have about a 40 degree horizontal FOV.

A tricky thing I discovered (I know, I was born yesterday) was that some of the eBay ads had confusing, conflicting, or flat incorrect information about the product offered. Doing searches which included “CCD” didn’t always return only cameras with CCD imagers – in fact, some sites would use the term “CCD” in several places when selling a CMOS camera. Also, attempting to figure out if a camera had a webserver built-in, and whether that webserver could respond successfully to queries that came in on Chrome, or Firefox, or whatever, not just IE, is quite challenging.

Suffice to say, I did find a camera which appeared, at least in theory, to meet many (but not all) of my desirements. The camera I discovered appeared to have the following features: 1) outdoor operation, with an included sunshade; 2) 1920 x 1080 resolution; 3) CCD imager for good low-light sensitivity (hard to tell until it’s in your hands, though); 4) $70 delivered; and 5)¬†built-in webserver, FTP server, etc. The things it didn’t appear to have included: 1) power over Ethernet (PoE), so I’d have to do that externally; 2) no idea of what the software was or how to configure the camera for my desired operating method; no idea if the camera was any good at all given the low price, and many other unknowns which wouldn’t be answered until I had one in my hands.

So, I placed the order on eBay and awaited delivery of my amazing new $70 super webcam. More soon on what I found out when I opened the box!

 

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