3D time of flight cameras smarten up driverless-vehicles

28 November 2016

Control Engineering UK looks at how driverless-vehicles are getting smarter, thanks to the use of time-off-flight cameras which are bestowing them with a greater awareness of their surroundings. 

Driverless-vehicles have always been limited in their application, as they need to follow a particular route and are not able to react flexibly to change. If, for example, an autonomous vehicle barrier came upon a barrier in its path it would be forced to make an emergency stop and is not able to take avoiding action. Further if an object is not exactly where it is expected to be then the vehicle would be unable to take any further action. The vehicles also require extensive orientation aids such as magnetic sensors or marked pathways along the floor to allow them to make sense of their current location. 

Industry 4.0 brings the promise of new approaches and new ways of providing machines with the ability to orient themselves and understand simple commands and earlier this year at Hannover Messe, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), Germany presented their work on 'driverless transport vehicles'.

The driver-less 'reach trucks' were developed as part of the research project. The intelligent vehicles can learn to orient and adapt themselves based on their environment. They begin by taking part in an initial human guided tour of the facility to note all aspects of their environment. Communication is done using speech or gesture commands. If a warehouse worker were to issue a command such as ‘Store this pallet on shelf 3,’ the vehicle can interpret both the spoken word and any associated gesture. It is then also able to identify the pallet and perform the requested storage, fetching or re-positioning task without the need of human intervention.

This experimental technology can be used for identifying transportable goods and permitting them to be picked, transported and deposited at their destination through smart autonomous reach trucks. The vehicles are easy to operate which means that a single warehouse worker can control multiple vehicles at once.

3D time of flight 
Time-of-flight camera technology provides an effective way to capture 3D shape and volume measurements ideal for driverless-vehicles technology. Time-of flight camera manufacturer, Basler describes the principle as similar to the way dolphins use sonar to navigate, except the time-of-flight camera uses light and not sound.

Each 'reach truck' utilises three Basler 3D time-of-flight cameras. Each camera takes a three-dimensional note of its environment, ensuring that its spatial perception is correct. Two cameras are mounted on the roof to allow for free movement in all directions. The reach truck takes note of any landmarks within its environment, establishing an internal map. Any changes in the environment are immediately noticed, such as when a shelving unit is re-positioned or any barriers are located in its path and reacts to these problems appropriately. If there were a barrier blocking its path, they would edge around it the same way a human would.

The third camera is a modified time-of-flight camera mounted on the reach arm which is used to ensure accuracy when picking up pallets. The 3D data delivered by the camera ensures that the reach truck navigates precisely into the pallet on the first try, without the need for human guidance. Commenting on the technology, Julie Busby of Multipix Imaging, UK distributor of the Basler cameras said: “3D technologies are playing an increasingly significant role in image processing applications, particularly within logistics, factory automation, and biometric applications. The latest time-of-flight technology is creating an exciting time for vision solutions”.

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