Blink: Security cameras with a power and bandwidth-stingy uplink

Article By : Brian Dipert

This engineer's exterior security camera system wish list was a tall one, but this solution seemingly checks off all the boxes.

My wife and I live in the Rocky Mountains foothills outside of and above Golden, CO. We’re blessed with an abundance of wildlife here, mostly harmless (elk, deer, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, and a diversity of bird species, for example) but in some cases potentially dangerous to us and our pets (bears, mountain lions, coyotes, bobcat, lynx, and the like), notably at night when we can’t see the critters (but they can still see us). Plus there’s the ongoing potential for human-intruder confrontations, of particular concern when I’m away and my wife is still at home.

That all said, an exterior-mounted security camera setup has therefore long been of interest to us. Regular readers may recall that I’ve periodically dabbled (with varying degrees of success) with cameras located in my home’s interior, particularly when I was splitting my “living” time between multiple locations (sometimes even in multiple states). Exterior use, conversely, incurs some additional complications:

And nice-to-haves include:

  • Battery power (coupled with long battery life) to preclude the need to run AC wiring, as well as enabling ongoing operation in case of premises power loss (as long as the LAN and WAN don’t go down, of course)
  • Wi-Fi support, to preclude the need to run Ethernet cable
  • High-definition video capture capabilities
  • Low initial cost
  • Low-to-no ongoing service cost

That’s a tall list, I realize. But believe it or not, I think I’ve found a solution that checks off all the boxes. Thanks in no small part to a recent (close-out, I later realized … more on that later) sale, I became acquainted with the product line of a company called Blink, originally Kickstarter-funded and as of 2017 part of Amazon. Blink, initially known as Immedia Semiconductor, was founded in 2009 as a chip supplier; it later pivoted to selling consumer electronics systems based on its own silicon (presumably either because it couldn’t find enough external customers for its chips, or was unable to sell them at sufficient profit margin, or some combination of these and/or other factors).

A Blink system consists of one or multiple tiny cameras, each connected both directly to a common router or to an access point intermediary (and from there to the Internet) via Wi-Fi, and to a common (and equally diminutive) Sync Module control point (which itself then connects to that same router or access point intermediary via Wi-Fi) via a proprietary “LFR” long-range 900 MHz channel:

The purpose of the Sync Module may be non-intuitive to those of you who (like me) have used standalone cameras before … until you realize that each camera is claimed to be capable of running for up to two years on a single set of two AA lithium cells. Perhaps obviously, this power stinginess precludes continuous video broadcast from each camera, a “constraint” which also neatly preserves both available LAN and WAN bandwidth. Instead, the Android or iOS smartphone or tablet app first communicates with the Sync Module and uses it to initiate subsequent transmission from a network-connected camera (generic web browser access to the cameras is unfortunately not available, although you can also view the cameras’ outputs from either a standalone Echo Show or Spot, or a Kindle Fire tablet in Echo Show mode).

The company initially offered two product lines: white-color, 720p-resolution, and interior-intended Blink cameras, and the incrementally more expensive black-color, 1080p-resolution, outdoor-intended Blink XT models that I have. Sync Modules are compatible with both camera types; as long as the 900 MHz control beacon reliably reaches far enough, and subject to a 10-camera-per-module limit (which can be further extended by multi-module setups) you can even mix-and-match both camera models within a common network. Initially, I bought a two-camera-plus-module kit on sale for $149:

I later supplemented those with three additional standalone cameras:

The Blink XT was subsequently superseded by the Blink XT2, although a close comparison of the specs indicates a more modest update than the hype might suggest at first glance. Both models support 1080p video (via a firmware upgrade to the original 720p on the Blink XT), both support region-based motion triggering (again via firmware upgrade on the Blink XT), and both claim up to two years of battery life (usage-dependent, of course, and perhaps more realistically achievable on the XT2). The primary differentiator I see is that whereas both product generations embed a microphone, the XT2 also integrates a speaker for two-way audio communication … useful with a front door-mounted camera, I suppose, but I doubt a mountain lion on the deck will be scared away by the sound of my voice!

The delay between requesting live video from a particular camera and the start of transmission from that camera is a few seconds at most, and the full-color daylight image quality is impressively solid, with wide angle-of-view. There’s no optical zoom or pan-and-tilt capabilities, but neither feature is particularly amenable to harsh-environment outside usage, anyway. And the images captured after dark are more useful than I would have imagined beforehand. Unlike other (more expensive) cameras, the Blink XT units don’t integrate an infrared light transmitter, which would have limited illumination range anyway. Instead, the image sensors’ infrared filters can be selectively disabled for broader-spectrum ambient light passage in exchange for monochrome, lower-resolution images (to be clear, given that the alternative is no images, this is an absolutely acceptable tradeoff!).

Last (at least for now) but not least, what about all-important privacy? As earlier mentioned, the LFR connection between each camera and its Sync Module nexus is proprietary; a thorough Google search I made in the hopes of revealing its secrets was fruitless. All Blink network nodes (cameras and Sync Module) also leverage Wi-Fi, complete with whatever encryption scheme you’ve implemented on the LAN. Keep in mind, though, that you’re also able to view live camera streams via a WAN connection, and don’t forget about the motion trigger-activated and “cloud”-stored video clips (with no accompanying monthly service fee, by the way, although duration-limited to 7,200 total seconds of video).

Live or archived video transmission over the WAN is not, as far as my research can tell, scrambled beyond that of normal data packets. And I suppose it’s theoretically possible that a hacker (or rogue employee) could also access video clips stored on Blink’s servers, with the rogue employee also theoretically being able to remotely control a live camera view. That all being said, a post I found from Blink’s director of customer support on the company’s community discussion forum is quite emphatic and pretty definitive:

We are not able to see your video, clips or turn on your camera video or make the mic “hot”. Like any vendor that has thought about the service side of these types of products, we’ve built in a lot of remote diagnostics.

Yes, we can send diagnostic triggers, like alerts or reset the camera, see timestamps, duration of clips, last clip times and devices that recorded. We can see Wifi and LFR signal strength, battery voltage, battery drain, usage statistics.

I’ll say it again, we do not and can not control your camera video or audio remotely, for the obvious reasons.

My next planned blog post in this series will cover both the initial installation and ongoing operation of the Blink hardware and associated software, among other things detailing the experience’s degree of customer friendliness. Until then, as always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments!

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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