Robots, drones, and wearable technologies can improve productivity in warehouses and factories, and the data they generate is just beginning to be analyzed for useful insights. Vicon Motion Systems Ltd. is applying motion-capture technology to improve efficiency and define the roles of humans and robots.
Vicon, which has offices in the U.K. and U.S., has sold sensors, software, and services for visual effects (VFX) and virtual reality (VR) in entertainment and healthcare applications for more than 35 years.
“Vicon started in the life science space in 1984, and since then, motion capture has been useful for treatment and diagnosis,” said Tim Massey, product manager at Vicon. “In 2005, the company won an Academy Award for VFX, and we’ve been learning about different industry use cases.”
Vicon grows from VR to the warehouse
“Vicon has been involved in the warehouse for some time, providing the ‘ground truth’ for control systems,” Massey told The Robot Report. “Various technologies use Vicon as a reference, from small consumer electronics to swarms of robots. They’re used to help develop onboard control systems with imaging and lidar.”
“We’re primarily outside-in sensors, such as inertial-based systems,” he noted. “Autonomous mobile robots can suffer from drift easily, so we complement those technologies.”
“We’re collecting and analyzing data to optimize layouts and change designs,” he said. “There’s a huge opportunity to not only understand data in virtual environments, but also to bring insights into reality.”
“We’re a data-acquisition tool, feeding high-quality data into programs that need large volumes of it for image recognition, routing robots, and coordinating them,” explained Massey. “A lot of major automotive manufacturers are clients. We produce a range of cameras for motion capture inside vehicle cockpits to understand how people interact with their designs.”
The company has also worked with the U.S. Army Research Lab on tracking unmanned aerial vehicles and ground robots.
“Developers are using our systems in certain autonomous scenarios, such as surface and commercial vehicles in the oil and gas industry,” he added. “We’re not as useful for autonomous vehicles as lidar, but where we really come into play are systems in a fixed location, such as a warehouse or an autonomous service route.”
Aiding in drone inspection, control
“Another related area is ergonomic studies of the human body for manufacturing and logistics,” said Massey. “From our VFX experience, we’re not just analyzing how people react in real or virtual environments. Robots are learning how to interpret human gestures.”
“We’re interested to see whether we could be incorporated as a package of systems to help control systems like drones,” he said. “We’d need a high volume of drones in practice, but there are already some in research settings.”
“For example, easyJet used a Vicon system to control the movements of a drone to precise tolerances around an aircraft to increase the speed of its maintenance schedule. A drone is safer and faster, and team members can be on the ground at a workstation examining photos and deciding how to move forward.”
“There is a lot of research and development in control systems,” Massey said, citing collaboration between Vicon and Technical University (TU) Dortmund on human-machine interaction in warehouses. The project involves 30 Vicon Vero and 10 Vicon Vantage motion-capture cameras, as well as a virtual warehouse environment.
Vicon in life sciences
In 2017, Vicon acquired IMeasureU, a motion-measurement company for healthcare researchers, athletes, and coaches. “Its products are starting to come out as part of our family,” Massey said.
“Our technology can be applied broadly to a number of applications and industries,” said Massey. “We get inquiries quite regularly about interest in telesurgery, particularly at the concept stage. The challenge is how to integrate motion-capture technology safely into those systems.”
In tele-operation, motion control involves close observation of human behavior. Companies such as Affectiva are working on “emotional measurement,” interpreting facial expressions, but there is some skepticism around the technology. How is that related to motion capture?
“We’re aware of the research, but Vicon’s systems are used for more image cues, providing higher-quality data so there’s less post-production work,” Massey responded. “They’re both part of a suite of technologies with a lot of potential end uses.”
“Every technology, such as lidar or motion capture, has advantages and disadvantages,” he concluded. “Vicon is interested in what you can do when you combine them and reduce technologies.”
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