As designs and prices get smaller, robotic cameras are cropping up on more stations’ wish lists, especially for groups with centralcasting ambitions. The top three manufacturers, offering different features and designs, see their market expanding both in the U.S. and internationally.
In little more than a decade, robotic studio cameras have gone from an edgy experiment in automation to a reliable mainstay in more than half of TV newsrooms in the U.S. Now falling prices make robotics attractive to stations even in the smallest markets, and vendors continue to tempt larger stations with next-generation upgrades and creative options.
The three top vendors — Vinten Radamec, Telemetrics and Ross Video — compete mainly through features and designs that reflect different priorities about camera placement, complex production values and the speed, precision and payload capacity of each robotic unit.
But vendors make similar claims. They all promise improved efficiency. One employee, sometimes with little manual experience, can operate multiple cameras. They say their gear will execute complex camera moves as planned, reliably and repeatedly. And they say the system will integrate smoothly with leading news production automation systems such as Grass Valley’s Ignite and Ross Video’s own Overdrive.
All three vendors offer free basic telephone support plus additional help with an extended warranty.
Vinten Radamec’s cinematic and video innovations date back to 1910 when it built movie projectors. During both World Wars, it made aerial reconnaissance cameras. The company invented some of the first camera robotics for the BBC in the early 1980s. Today, it’s best known for robotic studio pedestals, which offer pan, tilt and zoom control (often abbreviated PTZ) as well as repeat trajectory.
According to Product Manager Philip Dalgoutte, Vinten enjoys “the widest installed base” among robotics manufacturers and is the “market leader” in the U.S. However, neither Dalgoutte nor his rivals would divulge sales or estimate market share.
Vinten “is the Mercedez-Benz of robotic pedestals,” says international news consultant Ken Tiven, a former VP of TV systems at CNN. “From one control room in Atlanta, CNN International uses Vinten robotics to control newsroom cameras around the world.”
Vinten’s Fusion line of heads and pedestals vary by price, complexity and precision. Current top-of-the-line hardware and controllers advertise “both the fastest and slowest broadcast quality movement” achieved with dedicated microprocessors and servos, branded as Intelligent Control Engineering or ICE technology.
In addition to operating up to 16 cameras on one controller, Vinton systems allow a single operator to remotely balance the color levels and shading across multiple locations. What’s more, says Dalgoutte, Vinten robotics are always prepared for the worst-case scenarios. “If the automation link fails, you can immediately switch to full manual control with a live operator at the same level of performance.”
Unlike its competitors, whose robotics units were largely acquired, New Jersey-based Telemetrics’ camera control expertise is home grown, having developed innovative coax and triax remote camera systems almost 40 years ago. Telemetrics is currently best known for its line of track-based robotic camera mounts, including space-saving wall-mounted units.
While Telemetrics manufactures numerous models of its robotic camera mounts and track systems, it makes a much smaller selection of tripods and pedestals. “They’re not very good for on-air moves because studio floors are often uneven,” says Telemetrics VP Anthony Cuomo. Telemetrics tracks can bolt to either the floor or ceiling, the latter of which is “better for virtual sets, because it keeps the studio floor clear for overhead shots.”
Systems range from “under $100” for the simplest remote pan and tilt head, to “over $75,000” for a complete track or trolley system. A typical station would equip “three or four cameras with pan and tilt heads that can also support teleprompters and confidence monitors,” says Sales Director Jim Wolfe.
In addition to camera positions, Telemetrics controllers also save and store elevation, trolley position, pan, tilt, zoom, focus, camera iris and master black. “Other manufacturers control those elements, but they aren’t coordinated,” says Wolfe. “We can converge up to eight parameters at the same time.”
Telemetrics clients include CNN in Atlanta and ABC News in Washington with links to outposts at the Pentagon and to New York. In the White House Briefing Room, says Cuomo, “all networks have cameras on Telemetrics PT-CP4 compact tilt heads.”
According to Cuomo, manual back-up is mainly “a marketing pitch. It¹s so rare it’s hardly a concern.” But just in case, Telemetrics provides “rudimentary but adequate pan and tilt controls” through a manual panel with a joystick and an A/B switch. It also offers the PT-RM-1 robotic/manual pan/tilt head because “some studios like manual operation for certain productions, such as a live broadcast with many unexpected actions.” Cuomo cites CNN’s Atlanta studios as one client that requires manual and robotic controls, but “they rarely use the manual control.”
Ross Video offers two distinct product lines, Cambot and Furio, both derived from recent strategic acquisitions — California-based Cambotics, the pioneering robotic camera company known for its sturdy pedestals and wall-mounted rigs, and FX-Motion, the Belgian manufacturer of “full robotic” and “absolute positioning” systems.
Company President David Ross saw the two companies as components of a grand strategy: meet present-day station robotic needs while providing a pathway to more ambitious production tools such as virtual sets.
And TV stations could use some production help, Ross says. “What other video production in the world has just a talking head through the whole show?” heasks.
Ross’s solution? Combine Ross Robotics with Ross’s graphics platform, XPpression, which can generate both virtual sets and 3D “immersive graphics.”
The Cambot line, with its emphasis on PTZ functionality, is “perfect for news,” says Ross. “It gets the teleprompter in front of the talent reliably and cost-effectively and can be used for augmented reality” (such as superimposed 3D graphics.) But for almost the same price, the track or rail-based Furio robots can “zip around the studio and know where they are in 3D space then sync those coordinates with XPression. No other company has both robotics and graphics. We offer a much easier solution right out of the box.”
“American stations are looking into Furio,” says Stijn Vanorbeek, president of Ross Robotics (and co-founder of the former FX-Motion). “We’re already very strong in Europe.”
Ross Robotics’ overseas customers include the BBC, where “two out of three systems are Furio,” says Vanorbeek. American clients include KCBS-KCAL Los Angeles; WJZ Boston; WNDU South Bend, Ind.; KCET Los Angeles; the New Jersey studios of MLB Network; and America’s Got Talent, which uses the high speed Furio remote control dolly.
Short-term, the larger sales prospect may lie with smaller markets, says Telemetrics’ Jim Wolfe. “Centralcasting is a big opportunity as station groups and duopolies run several stations from a central hub. Our customers in Canada do news in each time zone and control a lot of small studios remotely.”
Indeed, camera manufacturers have been supporting this trend with a variety of low-cost, robot-friendly HD “block cameras,” which have no viewfinder. But as this market heats up, the camera vendors themselves may become a source of robotic competition.
“For a long time, Sony, Panasonic and JVC have sold HD cameras built into robotic camera heads for under $15,000 to the corporate, civic and church markets,” says consultant Tiven. “They’ve been careful not to undercut their more expensive products, but in today’s economy, that picture quality looks quite good.”
But Telemetrics’ Cuomo is unconcerned. “Each generation of cameras gets smaller, less obtrusive and less expensive. It’s the same with the robotics. It’s a growth market, domestically and internationally.”