How cameras in cars and drones are boosting wireless innovation

Cameras are built into many new devices. That creates many opportunities for the wireless industry.

embedded camera technology in drones

As we evaluate trends that will influence our work in 2016 and beyond, I’d like to suggest that designers explore the many new opportunities that embedded camera technologies will bring to cars and drones.

We’re already accustomed to cameras everywhere, in security and other fixed applications, and cameras are mainstream in mobile. In fact, society embraced cameras phones so quickly that the mobile industry has evolved away from its original voice context to become an industry characterized, in large part, by mobile visual communications. Cars and drones are the next logical applications for cameras, and the use cases are already established and gaining momentum. The trend will introduce a new field of innovation and opportunity that I call “cameras in motion.”

Cameras in Cars

After smartphones, automobiles are expected to become the second-largest market for compact camera technologies. Today, new automobiles have multiple cameras that are used for a variety of safety, driver assistance, and infotainment applications. Camera technologies facilitate lane departure alerts, provide forward collision alerts, and monitor blind spots. Rear-view cameras for safe backing, already popular, will be required in all new cars in 2018. Cameras will also play a significant role in autonomous and self-driving cars.

Law enforcement agencies are deploying in-car cameras along with wearable cameras to record officers’ routine work and criminal investigations. Consumers are using in-car cameras to record scenes and activities for entertainment and social media. Business applications will emerge, too. It’s easy to imagine insurance companies using car-based cameras and visual data when setting rates or processing claims, for example.

Camera Drones

2015 was a breakout year for drones, and the market is ramping up quickly. Drones are expected to provide cost-effective tools for visually inspecting remote or hard-to-access facilities such as power lines or agricultural crops, and drones are already inspiring new approaches for artistic and nature photography. The drone industry is expected to create 100,000 jobs in the next 10 years; within the next 20 years, the United States could reach 1 million drone flights per day.

Considerations for successful technology Implementation

The technologies needed for the cameras-in-motion market are mature and relatively simple to use. Thanks to the smartphone industry, which pioneered high-performance imaging for mobile and mobile-influenced applications, embedded 4K cameras can capture the most demanding high-definition imagery. Companies can conveniently interconnect camera sensors in their designs with the widely adopted MIPI Alliance Camera Serial Interface (CSI-2), which enables camera applications in most commercial mobile and mobile-influenced designs (disclosure: I work for the MIPI Alliance). Data transmission is conveniently accomplished on Wi-Fi or LTE-based networks.

Data storage and compression and CPUs are all available to support cameras in motion. Car and drone camera designs can be developed to work with mobile devices, the Internet, and cloud services. Integrated development environments and standards-based tools, such as HTML or standardized APIs, will also facilitate the design process.

Bundling and integrating embedded high-performance hardware components is, perhaps, a bit more challenging. Fortunately, electronic interface standards are available to facilitate interconnections, making the integration convenient and practical.

3 needs: Network Capacity, Storage and Compression

While the building blocks are in place to support a vibrant cameras-in-motion market, some technical advancements will be needed to sustain services in the long term.

Network capacity is one issue. If numerous drones are in a neighborhood streaming 4K video and other IoT products are also using the network, Internet connectivity or phone services over existing spectrum could be impacted. The forthcoming “5G” mobile standard will use higher-frequency spectrum and more frequency bands to support more data connections, but it will not be commercially available until around 2020. Wireless radios will also need RF tuning capabilities to automate the use of these new frequencies.

New storage and compression technologies will also be needed for the 4K videos taken by cars and drones. The industry has begun migrating to 3D NAND storage, and the H.265 high-efficiency video codec standard will provide significant improvements in compression to reduce bandwidth and storage demands. However, compression must improve further to deal with the data deluge expected from these and other data-centric services.

Encouragement with Some Caveats

2016 will be an exciting year as the cameras-in-motion era takes hold. Designers should feel comfortable taking advantage of current technologies to pursue opportunities in these new markets.

Keep in mind, however, that industry-specific regulations could impact design capabilities and use cases. For drones, the FAA will not let hobbyist or recreational drones fly within 5 miles of airports, and the operator must be within line of sight of the drone at all times. An FAA task force has just recommended requiring the registration of any drone that weighs half a pound or more.

Privacy is another concern, especially for camera-equipped drones deployed in neighborhoods. Government agencies are evaluating the implications, and regulations could be enacted. Car-based cameras will likely introduce privacy issues, too. Be aware of these issues and make sure your products can be used responsibly and legally.

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