Geo Week News

April 9, 2012

IEEE says 3D data will be big for robots in 2012

In the electronics field, there aren’t too many publications more respected than IEEE Spectrum. I’m a pretty big fan of their online products, myself. Today I ran across their Automaton blog, which on March 20 published a list of predictions for 2012 taken from some of the world’s leading roboticists. As you might imagine, 3D data capture figured prominently. 

Actually, you could probably guess the trends they seeing playing a large role if you’re a regular SPAR reader, as I’ve been harping on these things pretty continuously, but it’s nice to get some validation from the IEEE folks: the Kinect, autonomous vehicles, 3D printers (which themselves are basically robots), and those cool quadrotors. No surprises, but the way the trends are framed are pretty interesting. 

Can I get this, but with a Mac?

• The Kinect 

“People have been searching for a low cost alternative to laser rangefinders, and now we have one (for indoor use, at least),” one of our panelists told us, adding that she expects to see a “surge” in usage. 

The first inclination is to say this can only be a good thing for the industry. The Kinect can’t really compete with players like Velodyne in terms of accuracy, so they provide an entry path into the market that will lead people to more robust solutions. That’s terrific. Unless these cheap sensors get REALLY good. Then that could be a bad thing for the market’s growth for a short time, before widespread adoption brings the overall market size back up. We’ll see. But I had not heard this: “the Kinect 2, which may appear sometime this year, will feature higher resolution and frame rate, allowing the device, if you believe the rumors, to read lips.” That would be pretty dang crazy. 

They also discuss here the new cameras that capture all of the information needed for focusing a picture after it’s been taken (something Elmer Bol talked about at SPAR Europe in 2011 as part of his discussion of how photogrammetry stacks up with laser scanning (though it’s not actually in that clip, now that I watch it…)), and how that might be used for robotic sensing. I haven’t seen that application yet, but I can believe it’s on the way. 

I’d basically gleefully agree with this: “3D sensing is already hot,” one of the panelists commented, “but with the Kinect and the next generation of similar cheap sensors, the sky is the limit.” 

• Autonomous Vehicles 

Furthermore, it’s likely that autonomous vehicles will drive another trend as well: As one panelist explains, we should start to “map, and perhaps even instrument, our environment” to help autonomous cars and robots navigate. “This is a shift,” he says. “The emphasis used to be solely on local algorithms and computation. Folks are starting to realize that this is not the low-hanging fruit.” 

This, of course, is just what GTMA head Rob Dingess was telling me last week. Previously, we were talking about autonomous vehicles because they had lidar spinning on top of them. But what this trend might really drive is accurate 3D data capture of the nation’s/world’s roadways. If the vehicle has a cm-accurate map of the roadway as part of its brain and decision-making process, it seems like that would help quite a bit. 

• The 3D Printer 

Eh. Pretty much what you’d expect here, actually. Everyone is gonna have/want one. But this is a chance to re-plug my interview with MakerBot co-founder Bre Pettis. He’s a smart guy.

• Those Cool Quadrotors 

Consider DIY Drones, a popular website for UAV enthusiasts; it boasts more than 20,000 members who design, build, and fly their own autonomous UAVs. 

The key word there is “autonomous.” Sure, it’s cool that lots of people are flying their own little quadrotors and helicopters and other UAVs, but the UAVs that fly themselves are where the demand for 3D data comes in. Like the auto-cars, they’ll want 3D data with which to navigate. But they’ll also be able to deliver 3D data, as we’ve seen here (scroll to the bottom). Couple that with Trimble’s purchase of UAV company Gatewing and you’ve got yourself pretty good confirmation that the trendwatchers here are spot on. 

Like I said, none of these trends mentioned should be revolutionary to anyone watching the industry, but it’s always interesting to see what people working in something of a different industry – robotics and 3D capture obviously go hand-in-hand at some point – think is hot and potentially useful to the world at large. 

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