Newsrooms’ Robotic Cameras Get An IQ Boost
The robots are getting smarter.
Innovations in software and artificial intelligence have given camera robotics more capabilities at a time when broadcasters are streamlining operations and working to reduce the number of people needed to produce content and shows.
But software is only part of the story. Robotic hardware continues to improve the ranks of pan-tilt-zoom, rolling and ceiling-mounted offerings. Flying cameras, however, remain on the wish list.
“The most innovative thing happening in the robotics world is not coming up with more hardware,” says Bruce Takasaki, product manager for cameras and robotics at Ross Video.
It’s software and intelligence, he says.
“Artificial intelligence [AI] is everywhere,” resulting in “smarter robots,” he says.
The result, he says, is robots capable of carrying out actions that no longer must be programmed by humans.
It has taken some time for people to trust robot reliability, however.
“How much are (broadcasters) willing to trust systems to do things on their own?” Takasaki asks. “When it does things, it needs to be really reliable, or it won’t get used.”
Robotic camera control opens up possibilities for broadcasters, including the ability to control cameras from far away, to reduce the numbers of personnel needed for hands-on content production work, and to capture different visually appealing shots.
Edgar Shane, JVCKenwood’s GM of engineering, says camera robotics provide “super smooth motion” to “fly the camera, extend it up and gradually down.”
The robotics can “create a different style of production in the studio,” he says.
And in the last two years, he says, COVID-19 has driven customer need for cameras that are completely remotely controlled.
Robotic cameras are “traditionally controlled from the studio behind the glass,” he says. “The new demand is that the cameras are somewhere completely unmanned.”
That is one application where PTZ cameras – the “first, traditional robotic cameras” – found even more usage, he says.
James Eddershaw, CEO of Shotoku USA, says broadcasters can reliably control multiple cameras from afar using systems like Shotoku’s TRXT control systems. The CBC’s Toronto and Vancouver facilities use TRXT to remotely control cameras in distant studios.
It helps them “get the most out of the robotics they have,” Eddershaw says.
Automation Enables More With Less
One of the biggest trends Paddy Taylor, head of broadcast at MRMC, has seen in the last couple of years is the overall move to automation as a means to do more with less.
“Studio automation is part of it, but it’s fundamentally robotics automations,” he says.
One example is automated, real-time tracking. It’s happening in sports, such as real-time player tracking of German soccer players in the Bundesliga, Taylor says.
Polymotion Chat software uses facial capture for tracking.
But, Taylor says, broadcasters don’t always trust automated tracking. Instead, he says, they often use it in “semi-autonomous manner” and the camera “operator does the heavy lifting” of tracking people as they move.
AI-based tracking is a solution on offer from multiple vendors.
Eddershaw says Shotoku’s autoframe face tracker “locks onto the face and smoothly keeps it framed” even as presenters or guests move. “It’s good for guests who move and fidget
At this year’s NAB, Telemetrics introduced a new capability for reFrame, which uses AI-based facial and object tracking software to track multiple people on a set, Michael Cuomo, Telemetrics VP, says.
“The camera will track the talent as they walk in the studio, auditorium or event space,” he says.
With robots that can move around a studio floor, a key consideration is ensuring the robot carrying the camera doesn’t run into anything. Robots use different methods of navigating in a studio.
Telemetrics’ OmniGlide Roving Platform new Path Planning feature uses an imported 3D model of the studio to recognize pieces of the set as it smoothly moves around the studio, Cuomo says.
“A lot of customers are asking for more automation in the robotics system,” he says.
The pedestal rover’s movements through the studio can be seen in real-time in a virtual environment, he says.
Path Planning will allow the robot to navigate complex areas in smooth arcs to avoid collisions with objects and reach the final destination, he says. It uses AI software to learn the space it’s working in and find the safest route.
“It won’t try to move through a desk from one position to another,” Cuomo says.
The OmniGlides are already in studios, and because they are remotely upgradeable, features are rolling out to customers, he says. It can also be manually operated.
FreeD is a positioning system some camera robotics use, says Mike Edwards, technical specialist at Canon. While it is increasingly being used with augmented reality for shows like the Mandalorian, he says, some broadcasters are using it.
“We’re moving our support with [the FreeD] operating environment,” he says.
Navigating By Stars
Carl Bodeker, technical specialist at Vinten Robotics, says the need for accurate positioning prompted Vinten to work with a partner to develop MO-sys star navigation for pedestal robots. “Repeatable to millimeters,” the pedestals follow a map of stars – about 400 stars in the ceiling or lighting grid in a typical studio, he says.
“The camera needs to see 15-plus stars for full navigation,” he says.
He says pedestal cameras that navigate by the stars are in use by both news and sports broadcasters.
A new geofencing feature prevents the pedestals from “running into fixed assets in the studio,” Bodeker says.
“An optional collision avoidance system puts a perimeter around the base of the pedestal, and through infrared sensors, it detects objects and stops it from colliding,” he says.
Moving By Magnets
Magnetic pathways are another way to set the movement of robots.
“They want the ability to move the camera where they want inside the studio, not just the specific path used by rail dollies,” Rob Drewett, CEO and co-founder, Motion Impossible, says.
The company’s MagTrax – a magnetic strip that can be embedded under carpet allowing it to move around a stage – was used at the Oscar and Tony awards events, he says.
“No one sees it or can trip over it,” Drewett says. The AGITO robot is “free moving but attached to a safety rail system that’s invisible.”
Ben Dair, chief product officer at Motion Impossible, says the AGITO follows the magnetic strip every time but can also breakaway onto different tracks and rejoin the original track, or it can free roam.
“But then it can come back and lock onto the invisible track,” he says.
PTZ’s Enduring Popularity
PTZ cameras remain a popular choice for broadcasters.
Canon has made PTZ cameras for the outdoor market for more than a decade but has set its sights on the indoor market, Edwards says. About a year ago, Canon introduced its first indoor PTZ.
“That’s a pretty fresh market” where Canon expect more demand from traditional customers, he says.
One of datavideo’s products, the PTR10, can give ENG-style cameras, camcorders, DLSRs or micro 4/3 cameras PTZ functionality, says Rob Read, director of business development of datavideo.
“Regular PTZ cameras might not meet requirements because of the image quality and depth of field,” he says. “In live production and broadcast, where you want to turn these nice cameras into PTZ, there wasn’t a great solution out there that was cost effective.”
The PTR10 launched in 2020, and the second version featuring an updated motor and extra camera control features has been shipping since the fall of 2021.
On the hardware side, Takasaki says Ross’ Furio SkyDolly is making possible moving shots from ceiling-mounted cameras that weren’t previously possible. Previously, he says, even with lighter payloads, some ceiling-mounted systems couldn’t create smooth moving shots at high speeds.
“They tend to shake,” he says.
Al Jazeera in Qatar is using the SkyDolly to capture a “challenging” shot without sacrificing payload, he says.
Takasaki says the basic structure of robotics today is pretty similar to that of 25 years ago and wonders if there is a “completely different” way of solving problems around camera robotics, such as gravity.
“A flying camera would be awesome,” he says.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Telemetrics’ reFrame as a new product. ReFrame has added a new server, but the product has been on the market since 2018. This version also includes additional information on Telemetrics’ OmniGlide Roving Platform.