Video processing

A wireless 1080p HD video camera and data logger wearable for whales – designed in Wales! .

DESIGN SERVICES: Hardware Design, PCB Design, Software Design, Prototype/Production Manufacturing
KEY TECHNOLOGIES: Low Power, Digital Video, Wireless Connectivity, Sensor Integration, Miniature Circuit Design

BRIEF

All our design projects are unique in some way, but one of our first contracts had a very unusual angle – We were approached by CATS (Customized Animal Tracking Solutions), a scientific support company that provides specialist technology solutions and services to animal research and conservation programmes around the world. Established in 2012 by Dr Peter Kraft and Dr Nikolai (Niko) Liebsch, CATS have built up an enviable reputation for delivering technically advanced and sophisticated data logging/monitoring technologies for field (or ocean) deployment on major animal research studies.

CATS had already developed a miniature data logger (CATS-Diary) for attachment to animals. CATS-Diary captures and records an electronic log of many physical parameters (including depth, direction, acceleration, temperature and light) and, when attached to a study animal, can operate on battery power for several days, making use of proprietary and application-specific control algorithms to maximise operating life.

Lab analysis of the data logger recordings provided great insight into the behavioural characteristics of tracked animals. However, CATS had a bigger and still more ambitious goal – to open up a window and allow researchers to see the world directly from an animal’s perspective within its wild environment.

APPROACH

Serendipity had a role to play in our unexpected introduction to CATS through a mutual acquaintance, especially given that Dr Peter Kraft lives high in the German Alps and Dr Niko Liebsch is based in Queensland, Australia. Peter approached TDI to tell us about their ambitious plan and to discover if we had both the skills and the courage to develop a compact, real-time HD video camera that could be tightly integrated with their data logger functions: CATS-Cam.

We were keen to help, given our engineering team’s long-standing experience in advanced digital video developments and because we wanted to help play a part in supporting animal and marine mammal research, conservation and educational study programmes of global significance.

The design had to take account of strict size and weight constraints. The logger/camera electronics were to be enclosed and protected inside custom, waterproof housings that would be designed and made by Niko at his base in Australia. Niko had already demonstrated great skills in the design and production of a range of innovative housings using 3D-printed fabrication techniques. He was very keen to extend these skills by creating new housings that would allow CATS-Cam to be deployed in many different field environments and with many different types of marine life.

We started by analysing the CATS-Diary design and establishing what improvements we could make to size, power and functionality. Introducing an upgraded microcontroller added extra interfaces and peripherals, to support tight integration with the video camera/recorder electronics and inclusion of Wi-Fi for wireless data offload and device control. By including a battery charge control IC, Lithium Ion battery packs could be fitted inside the housing and charged efficiently over USB or via dedicated charging contacts.

For the critical new technology of the HD video camera and recorder, we identified a CMOS image sensor that supported 1080p (Full HD) resolution and, due to its high sensitivity, offered good imaging performance even in low light conditions. For the critical functions of real-time video compression and storage, a power-efficient ARM-based video processor was selected. This processor communicated with the data logger’s microcontroller over a serial link, allowing video recordings to be offloaded over USB or wirelessly over Wi-Fi.

We created a tight stack of circuit boards to house all the video functions: image sensor, video processor and memory, micro SD-card storage and related power management. CATS were keen to minimise the space envelope of the imaging electronics. By applying careful design, we were able to meet these requirements whilst avoiding the extra expense and complexity of applying micro-via technology, despite the inclusion of high pin-count ball grid array (BGA) processor and memory components.

We commissioned and managed prototype PCB fabrication and board assembly at our preferred manufacturing partners. TDI took responsibility for updating the CATS-Diary firmware, integrating new sensor types, battery charging features and, most significantly, the addition of a wireless Wi-Fi capability.

OUTCOME

CATS-Cam offers uniquely powerful features with its 1080p HD video capture/recording capability, integrated multi-sensor data logger and highly flexible characteristics. As every type of animal and its environment is different, CATS customises each CATS-Cam to suit individual requirements, whether for use on land or in the ocean.

By combining leading-edge technology, customisation skills and outstanding abilities in their deploying devices on wild animals in challenging environments, CATS have successfully won many contracts to apply CATS-Cam on research programmes around the globe, including studies into humpback whales and great white sharks.

Some remarkable photos and sample video footage can be seen on their website: http://www.cats.is/products/cats-cam/