Borescopes and Endoscopic cameras. From a bird’s eye view, these may seem similar: a flexible or rigid tube with Chip-on-Tip / CMOS technology. Zooming in, we can appreciate the powerful capabilities they provide for a spectrum of visualization applications — in aerospace, industrial inspection, defense/security, research, and of course, cutting-edge medicine.
Let’s examine some innovations and trends.
Aerospace: Space-Qualified Cameras
Developments in aerospace are especially exciting. Perhaps a new race-to-space, or rather, an innovation-race-in-space is underway?
What’s emerging is commercialization and privatization of space tech and extraterrestrial travel. Space-qualified borescopes can require customized integration with robotics. International standards must be met, further increasing complexity. Once, space projects were government-funded, developed in-house. Space organizations are turning to outsourcing, co-development, and strategic collaborations.
Scientific American recently reported Axiom Space’s ground-breaking first privately-funded and operated mission to the International Space Station (ISS). This mission is under commercial agreement with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with diverse international crewmembers: an American real estate and technology entrepreneur, a businessman and former Israeli fighter pilot, a Canadian investor and philanthropist, and a retired NASA astronaut with experience from four prior space missions.
“Pivoting to Space,” the recent 16th Annual Ilan Ramon Foundation International Space Conference, covered global innovations and trends. Dr. Eugene Tu, Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, noted that space exploration and utilization is following a similar path as aviation, evolving from government research becoming privatized: “Once government agencies were the only ones doing work in space. Now that has completely changed… We are in an era of space exploration and utilization that’s certainly unprecedented.” Conference participants provided insights on remote monitoring/sensing, the internet of things (IoT), and manufacturing in space (including food production!) for the benefit of earth and astronauts. Improved connectivity in outerspace helps support growing video transmission needs: geopositioning, communication between astronauts, back to home-base, ISS-to-vehicles, to satellites (micro- and nano-satellites), and other spacecraft.
Another trend, miniaturization, helps us reach further into the galaxy. Missions increasingly require high-performance, high-definition (HD) video streamed over dynamic ranges. Reducing size-weight parameters optimizes launch, fuel-use, and easy integration in robotics. Robot-assisted tasks require live-streaming video for extraterrestrial inspection of maintenance and repair. Aerospace organizations have discovered the benefits of integrating micro-cameras in special-purpose borescopes. Such space-qualified cameras by ScoutCam were selected for several successful ISS missions — making real-time inspection of refueling in space finally possible. Robustness of ScoutCam micro video technology has been validated with NASA in the harsh conditions of outer space: extreme temperatures (-127°C – +100°C), vacuum, vibrations, and radiation.
Applications for remote visualization will continue to grow. Further technical developments are in the upcoming article in quarterly Photonics & Imaging Technology magazine “Micro-cameras Bring New Video Applications into Focus – From the International Space Station Down to Earth.”
For diagnosis and delicate minimally invasive procedures, superior resolution is especially crucial. Miniaturization of Full HD 1080p is becoming a major trend. Clinicians now seek higher definition endoscopes without compromising smaller sized sensors: feature-flexibility, superior illumination and irrigation to maximize their working channel and assure optimal clinical results. Yet, there are best-resolution-for-best price trade-offs. Single-use /disposable endoscopes are also part of the equation, exacerbated by COVID-19 challenges.
As healthcare resources are stretched for the pandemic and beyond, cost-effectiveness is vital. A tiny footprint with illumination and irrigation enables maximizing working channels. The micro ScoutCam™ is the world’s smallest medical device camera, 1.0mm including illumination. This technology enables breakthrough OR-ready wireless endoscopes.
Industrial Inspection Cameras
Some industrial leaders may wonder: Why do we need a smaller borescope? Transitioning to Industry 4.0 inspection solutions may seem “disruptive” compared to traditional methods. Yet, for ongoing maintenance, it’s more disruptive for the bottom-line to shut down a working generator, halt production, take apart complex machinery, install large inspection cameras, and then reboot; this can introduce manufacturing errors and adversely impact revenue.
Miniaturization – such as deploying Camera-as-a-Sensor™ technology to go where other larger cameras cannot – mitigates the business impact of inspection and broadens possibilities for predictive maintenance. Furthermore, tiny-diameter cameras are more resistant to machine-vibration and enable inspectioning narrow chambers previously impossible to enter. For example, development of such advanced visual inspection is underway for ground maintenance and in-flight monitoring of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
Defense & Security: Micro-Surveillance
For defense, Homeland Security (HLS) and surveillance, borescopes must comply with standards and processes. Robustness, discreet lightweight size, all-weather capabilities typically according to military grade imaging and transmission requirements are all critical. Here as well, a tiny footprint enables installation in discreet locations as well as inspection through tight openings down to millimeters in diameter.
Deployment of customized tactical video surveillance systems with field-proven technology is in demand. Growing applications include miniaturization of military security cameras, law-enforcement drones, and aerial surveillance tailored to mitigate threats in both the public and private sectors.
Research: Microscopy Imaging
Researchers often require swift response to their RFPs for plug-and-play microscopy imaging. Tight budgets are often center-stage.
With requirements for advanced visualization at cost/performance value, there’s a trend towards specialized research-camera kits. These are based on resilient micro-cameras (priced attractively) with several camera/scope/illumination options readily available for rapid integration.
Cameras are virtually everywhere. From the extraterrestrial to high-precision procedures such as intercranial endoscopy, visualization devices are more advanced — going further, enabling more than ever before. Thanks to trending miniaturization and customization, borescope and endoscope micro-cameras have become mega-enablers.