Due to both ongoing hiring shortages along with a general desire to streamline operations, not to mention greater development of the technology, construction firms are becoming more willing to incorporate mobile, autonomous robots onto their job sites. There is still work to be done in the area, which is still a relatively new space, but a willingness to even entertain the idea is still relatively new in the industry. That being said, there are still barriers which need to be crossed, and many of the tools are still lacking in more complex environments. Stereolabs, a camera manufacturer focused on 3D perception, has been working to combat some of these barriers, and earlier this month announced their new ZED-X solution, which they say is “the first stereo camera designed for robotic navigation and process automation in tough indoor and outdoor environments.”
Currently, many of these autonomous solutions rely on lidar for their navigation, such as Boston Dynamics and their agreement from earlier this year with Velodyne Lidar. While those sensors have their own strengths, as do normal cameras, Stereolabs notes that the more traditional solutions can suffer from “limited fields of view, low resolution, and difficulty recognizing objects.” The company points to the stereo camera system, with its multiple lenses on each camera, as being able to overcome those issues to enable more seamless navigation in tough environments, while being more affordable than lidar-based solutions as well. The ZED-X is powered by a pair of new software solutions from Stereolabs, the ZED SDK 4.0 and the ZED Hub multi-camera control platform, and is optimized for use with NVIDIA’s Jetson AGX Orin supercomputer. Along with construction, agriculture, logistics, and last-mile delivery are spaces the company specifically calls out which can benefit from this release.
In order to enable the safest navigation possible for these autonomous tools, the ZED Hub is key. Rather than needing to manually fuse data from multiple camera sources, the ZED Hub completes that process automatically from cameras placed around the perimeter of the autonomous machine. This new hardware release includes two form factors, the ZED-X and the ZED-X mini, with the cameras providing 3D perception at a range of 0.2 to 20 meters for navigation, and up-close at a range of 0.08 to 12.5 meters for object detection. Stereolabs provides an example of maximizing these capabilities with an autonomous tractor, which could use the ZED-X for safe navigation and the ZED-X Mini for crop detection.
Stereolabs points to the following three key, standout features for their new ZED-X in the press release: A high-resolution RGB sensor with global shutter, an IMU designed for robots that experience high vibration, and a secure GMSL2 connection. The global shutter is a big reason why the camera is able to be utilized in both indoor and outdoor environments, with the 3.0 µm pixel size guaranteeing image quality in “both low-light and bright conditions,” per the release. Meanwhile, the built-in IMU ensures that the camera can be used on robotic solutions in particularly rugged environments. And finally, the GMSL2 connection supports high-speed video data transfer, with video data transferring from the camera to an AI gateway at a speed of up to six GB per second. In other words, the accompanying robot can respond extremely quickly to changes detected in its surrounding environment.
There is room for multiple types of navigation solutions for autonomous solutions for different industries, and a system of stereo cameras like the ZED-X certainly fits that bill. One of the biggest reasons these autonomous solutions, whether they be robots for capturing environments or automated heavy machinery, is so appealing on construction sites even beyond hiring concerns is improving safety on job sites. In complex and rugged environments, having the ability to complete tasks without having to put human workers at risk is always sought after from firms, but the accessibility of these solutions haven’t always been there. This kind of set-up, with multiple stereo cameras providing clear 3D, 360-degree vision for machines with AI-enabled software to streamline the data processing, can unlock those possibilities at scale.
Stereolabs CEO Cecile Schmollgruber spoke to this in a press statement, saying, “Today’s robots need to navigate in harsh environments and respond quickly as they operate. Building an affordable, industrial-grade surround 3D perception solution is critical to production-scale deployment of next-generation robotics and smart analytics. Our camera-based solution dramatically simplifies 360-degree spatial perception, and is backed by an ecosystem of tools to integrate and control them at a price point that makes it easy to add 3D vision to any machine.”
The ZED-X and ZED-X Mini are both currently available for pre-order, with shipping expected to begin in February of 2023. Meanwhile, the new ZED SDK 4.0 and ZED Hub management software are both currently available immediately and can be incorporated with the rest of the ZED range of cameras offered by Stereolabs.