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Industrial automation welcomes new use cases for 3D vision

Posted: 08 May 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Embedded Vision Alliance? industrial automation? 3D? machine vision?

Similar to automated inspection, machine vision has become an essential technology in industrial applications. However, the advent of more cost-effective 3D image sensors has spawned a number of vision applications. From automating truck loading to improving factory safety, depth perception is empowering additional vision opportunities in industrial automation.

"The use of 3D in vision applications has been evolving for a while," said Jeff Bier, founder of the Embedded Vision Alliance, "but in the last year or so it crossed a critical threshold. Multiple suppliers are now offering 3D vision modules at low cost, making it practical in industrial applications where it wasn't before." Bier noted that five years ago 3D imaging required large, expensive equipment but now the cost is being driven down by consumer-oriented modules for smartphones and the like. He pointed to Intel's RealSense and SoftKinetic's DepthSense offerings as examples of 3D image sensors coming out of the consumer space.

Image processing software, including 3D processing, has also become increasingly available. On the open source front, OpenCV revision 3.0, currently in beta, offers expanded support for 3D vision. Commercial middleware for 3D vision has also become available, such as the Starry Night object recognition and reconstruction package from VanGogh Imaging and the Triclops SDK from Point Grey for its stereo vision products. There are even specialized 3D image processors available from companies such as Inuitive.

3D robots

With the ability to "see" in 3D robots are able to safely work in close proximity with humans. (Source: Rethink Robotics)

There are also several approaches to providing 3D. The use of two cameras to provide a stereoscopic view is the traditional approach. A newer option is the combination of a 2D camera with time-of-flight sensors working with a scanned, pulsed illumination pattern. In this approach, a pulsed (typically IR) light source scans the scene and a sensor measures the time between pulse generation and the returned reflection, yielding distance. Correlating the resulting depth map with the pixels from the camera gives the third dimension.

More recently mobility has become a source for additional dimensionality. A moving camera capturing images of a relatively stationary object field can obtain depth information from an analysis of successive frames. Companies such as VanGogh Imaging and vidantis are supporting this approach.

Bier pointed out that this expanding availability of 3D vision technology and options will prove a boon for factory automation. For example, today's production lines might use a robot for assembly and a separate vision system further down the line to inspect the results. But if a vision system is on the robot, that vision can detect (and potentially correct) problems as they occur rather than have them propagate down the assembly line.

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