Micro-Cameras Bring New Video Applications into Focus
Figure 1. ScoutCam micro-camera with fiber optic illumination (net camera Ф1.2mm). The first micro-camera ever operated by NASA in outer space. The technology platform is highly customizable to enable precise, micro-camera visualization for aerospace, defense, industrial, medical, and research applications.
Innovation in imaging for aerospace and defense has gone micro. Powerful, yet tiny micro-cameras can now provide unique streaming-video solutions for a wide range of applications requiring highly robust systems for direct visualization under extremely harsh conditions.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has discovered the benefits of including micro-cameras in robotic systems in outer space. On earth, the same technology is field-proven in a variety of industries. Several major defense companies are also benefitting from customized integration of micro-cameras in various defense and homeland security surveillance systems.
Measuring down to 1mm (outer diameter, including illumination), ScoutCam’s tiny color video camera is the world’s tiniest camera. The technology features advanced optic and illumination solutions, micro-sensors and high-end video processors that can be tailored for aerospace (space qualified cameras), defense, industrial, medical, and research applications. To date, customized micro-camera solutions are consistently lightweight, down to 0.04g per camera with lightweight related components (usually no more than 50g).
To achieve maximal miniaturization of the entire platform (not just the sensor or the camera), ScoutCam video technology uses both proprietary imaging components as well as commercial off-the-shelf components to produce the smallest camera solution, which are all integrated seamlessly and then customized according to specifications for each application.
HOW DOES SCOUTCAM MICRO-CAMERA TECHNOLOGY WORK?
Figure 2. Partially exposed video and illumination components of the micro-camera in orbit now in NASA’s Robotic Refueling Mission 3 at the International Space Station; this camera is installed the next-generation Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot, VIPIR2. This tiny solution provides a 100-degree field-of-view image with 1 mega-pixel resolution in real-time from outer space.
ScoutCam micro-camera technology provides live-streaming video with a close focal distance down to 2mm. There are several key components that work together to deliver direct real-time visualization:
- Micro-CMOS sensors – these include a proprietary 0.7×0.7mm sensor with 50k pixels that has special properties that make it specifically suitable for aerospace and defense applications, such as being supported by a thin cable of 0.58mm with practically limitless length. Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) sensors from other vendors are also used.
- Proprietary optic designs with both glass and polymer lenses and micro-assembly (most often assembled from several optic elements, either manually or robotically).
- Miniaturized components such as the electronic printed circuit board (PCB) based on patented technology that allow the development of smaller cameras, even in situations where the same COTS sensor is used.
- Video processors utilizing high-end digital signal processing (DSP) and unique image processing algorithms.
Waterproof; highly resistant to vibrations, temperature, vacuum, radiation, magnetic field; and RF-protected; micro-camera solutions can be tailored to provide HD video for single-use or multi-use. Such robust qualities result from state-of-the-art engineering in both the tiny, patented design and proprietary production process. Further flexibility in tailored solutions is possible with either a wired option up to 30m or wireless option with zero latency as well as customizable illumination solutions. This makes micro-camera technology highly versatile and customizable. How each micro-camera works depends on its specific task as defined by the customer.
TYPICAL APPLICATIONS IN AEROSPACE AND DEFENSE
Figure 3. Specifications for the micro-camera specially designed and currently deployed in NASA’s RRM3; beyond these parameters, ScoutCam components can be tailored per customer-defined HD video, illumination and irrigation specs for their visualization needs.
Several missions in the space industry have employed ScoutCam micro-cameras in robotic, multi-capability inspection tools. This micro video technology has been validated with NASA in the harsh environmental conditions of outer space: extreme temperatures (-127°C – +100°C), vacuum, vibrations, and radiation. This visualization technology has proven to be viable – and vital – for current and future space operations.
After testing, the micro-camera was first added to NASA’s Visual Inspection Poseable Invertebrate Robot (VIPIR) since its tiny dimensions deliver an impressive image. The technology provided a 100-degree field-of-view image with a 224(H) × 220(V) pixel resolution. ScoutCam micro-camera was successfully operated in space in May 2015 and transmitted live images to earth.
The second micro-camera solution developed for NASA was for an Inter-national Space Station mission that is currently in progress. The requirement was to build the smallest HD camera from “scratch” and add illumination similar to the one used in the first mission. This camera was designed and built from the basic components and included the smallest HD sensor that was commercially available at that time.
Starting in 2016 NASA incorporated ScoutCam 8.0 HD, the world’s smallest HD camera at the time as well as the illumination solution into the next-generation robotic inspection tool, VIPIR2, which is part of NASA’s current Robotic Refueling Mission 3 (RRM3). This mission builds on prior phases of International Space Station technology demonstrations that tested tools, technologies, and techniques to refuel and repair satellites in orbit.
The ScoutCam micro-camera was incorporated at the tip of a deployable video borescope to demonstrate camera inspection capabilities. With this configuration, the VIPIR2 can now navigate the micro-ScoutCam for direct visualization through tight openings down to a single inch in diameter. As a result, real-time inspection of refueling in space is finally possible.
Figure 4. Precision is key. Example of 5mm focus HD with target which can be tailored for a variety of industries; the micro ScoutCam™ medical camera series ranges from 1.0 mm to 6.5 mm diameter. This second micro-camera solution was launched to the International Space Station in December 2018. Its operation is being rescheduled due to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
In the aerospace industry, micro-cameras that are lightweight and resistant to harsh environmental conditions can provide a variety of solutions for in flight indication, inspection or diagnosis of critical aircraft systems such as the engine (e.g., is there smoke coming out of the engine?), landing gear, flight control surfaces, flaps, and more. Another use of micro-cameras is obviously for surveillance needs, especially under challenging conditions. Currently, projects are underway with leading defense researchers for new military defense and homeland security products.
Figure 5. The smallest micro-camera in the world to date with illumination and irrigation, this ScoutCam micro-camera solution has a 1.2 mm outer diameter (OD).
In addition to aerospace and defense, there are also industrial and medical uses for micro video cameras.
In industrial settings, this technology is ideal for inspection in remote, narrow and challenging environments. In particular, it is highly suitable for predictive maintenance based on the Internet of Things (IoT). For example, placing miniature visualization solutions in various critical parts of a machine would allow it to report any changes based on the images it captures, such as the movement of an object or a change in its color.
A recent example of an industrial application is the nuclear power industry where, in a facility in Germany, micro-camera-based solutions are being deployed. The technology has the potential to enable operators to possess better command and control over the reactors under various conditions.
Medical applications have become widely used and market proven, meeting stringent regulatory and safety requirements for the healthcare industry. Micro-cameras are used in daily practice, from diagnostics to therapeutic and surgical applications, particularly for single-use, medical robotics for both surgical and non-invasive procedures.
The micro ScoutCam™ medical camera series offers 1.0 mm – 6.5 mm diameter, representing the world’s smallest CMOS video medical cameras. It features a micro medical camera equipped with micro-CMOS sensors, ultimate image technology including illumination, irrigation and additional functionalities to cover a broad scale of innovative medical applications. This offers the ability for direct visualization in confined areas of the human anatomy. The technology is incorporated in fiber optic endoscopes as well as cameras for endoscopy, ENT endoscopy, gastroscopy, laparoscopy, urology, arthroscopy, gynecological endoscopy, and surgical visualization solutions.