Advances in 3D Cameras Will Help Fight COVID-19
Jessica Zimmer posted on August 05, 2020 |
The 3D cameras will be used by robots designed for health care facilities.

Orbbec’s 3D cameras: The Astra Stereo S U3 is in the center front (silver case), while the Astra Mini S is to the back and right (silver case). (Image courtesy of Orbbec.)

Orbbec’s 3D cameras: The Astra Stereo S U3 is in the center front (silver case), while the Astra Mini S is to the back and right (silver case). (Image courtesy of Orbbec.)

Orbbec, a 3D imaging company based in Shenzhen, China, that has a U.S. office in Troy, Mich., is currently working on a next generation chip to improve the performance of its 3D cameras. The 3D cameras are a critical component of robots that can scan faces, perform social distance checks, and avoid obstacles while sanitizing large spaces like hospitals.

While China has been criticized for video surveillance and facial recognition, Orbbec appears to exist for more benign purpose. Orbbec’s next generation chip is only to allow robots to perform tasks more efficiently, thereby improving robots designed for health care facilities. The robots will then be better equipped to reduce risks to patients and hospital workers.

“We plan to incorporate the next generation chip in 3D cameras in the Astra line in Q1 of 2021. Later on, we plan to make changes that will increase the field of view for the 3D cameras,” said David Chen, cofounder and director of engineering for Orbbec 3D Technology International, Inc.

Orbbec’s customers include Keenon Robotics, which makes delivery robots; IBen Robot, which makes sanitizing robots; and OrionStar, which makes guiding robots, or robots that guide people to specific locations. Keenon Robotics’ Peanut model robots currently use Astra Mini S cameras for seeing objects at close range. The Peanut robots are deployed in over 50 hospitals across seven provinces in China, including Beijing and Shanghai. These robots deliver supplies within hospital buildings, minimizing the need for person-to-person contact.

A live RGB image (left) compared with a depth map and skeleton image, both taken with an Orbbec 3D camera, to show how 3D cameras can protect a patient’s privacy. (Image courtesy of Orbbec.)
A live RGB image (left) compared with a depth map and skeleton image, both taken with an Orbbec 3D camera, to show how 3D cameras can protect a patient’s privacy. (Image courtesy of Orbbec.)

3D cameras like those in the Astra line are critical for imaging components that allow robots to communicate with doctors, take patient vital signs, and deliver medications. The 3D cameras help the robots orient themselves to patients and reposition themselves to disinfect contact surfaces. Orbbec plans to have chips that will be able to search a much larger range of depth. The company also wants to improve chips for better performance with increased depth sensing demands.

The cameras that have been incorporated into health care robots are the Astra Mini S and the Astra Stereo S series. Both types of cameras are optimized for short-range use, or for viewing things close up. Cameras in the Astra Stereo S series are designed to be used in multi-camera applications, with two or more cameras placed close together. Cameras in the Stereo S series can also be used outdoors.

Since there are several cameras in the Astra Stereo S series, the specs here will focus on information for Orbbec’s newest camera in the series, the Astra Stereo S U3. 

The technical specs for the 3D cameras used in robots are a range of 0.35m-1m for the Astra Mini S and 0.25m-2.5m for the Astra Stereo S U3. The field of view for the Astra Mini S is 60°H x 49.5°V x 73°D. The depth field of view for the Astra Stereo S U3 is 67.9°H x 45.3°V x 78°D ±3.0°. The RGB field of view for the Astra Stereo S U3 is 71.5°H x 56.7°V x 84°D. The RGB image resolution and depth image resolution for the Astra Mini S is 640 x 480 x 30 fps. The depth resolution framerate for the Astra Stereo S U3 is 1280 x 800 @ 30 fps; 640 x 400 @ 60 fps; and 640 x 400 @ 30 fps. The RGB resolution framerate for the Astra Stereo S U3 is 1920 × 1080 @ 30 fps; 1280 × 720 @ 30 fps; and 640 × 480 @ 30 fps.

Both cameras require less than 2.4 watts (W) of power and are able to operate on single-board computers.

Chen has seen sales climb in some industries since the pandemic began. 3D cameras are also being used for new applications. For example, the pandemic has accelerated the health care industry’s shift to telemedicine. The 3D cameras can be used to remotely monitor patients, including the elderly. For instance, these cameras effectively and instantaneously detect when a patient falls, so a health care professional can quickly respond.

The 3D cameras can also detect if a patient moves outside of a specific area or leaves their bed. The 3D camera tracks the patient’s movement and sends an alert to a health care professional.

Currently, Orbbec’s senior care facility and health care customers mount 3D cameras inside of a room to track a patient’s movement. A 3D camera provides more privacy to a patient than a video monitor if the 3D camera is set to capture only the depth output. With this setting, the camera provides an image of the outline of a person’s body without showing the individual’s facial features or clothing. The cost of a 3D camera currently ranges between $149 and $239.

Orbbec is also looking to improve the stability, durability and performance of its 3D cameras. “Hospitals want cameras that run 24/7, which presents a design challenge. Some robots disinfect with a liquid spray that creates a mist. We want the camera to be able to see through the mist,” he added.

Orbbec wants to make the cameras more reliable under different working conditions. The company has increased production of its 3D cameras since the pandemic began. Production slowed only when China first shut down in February 2020.

“The design team is working together online. The manufacturing team suffered certain impacts early on in the main factory. Fortunately, since not all provinces were heavily affected, the factory began to run on a normal schedule again in March,” explained Chen.

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