Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Surfing the web

These days, it's important to have a presence on the interweb, because without it your company will be deemed to be either behind the times or out of business.

Recognising this fact, many vision systems integrators and their suppliers have developed their own web sites in which they can tout their wares and demonstrate their expertise to their customer base.

Sadly, however, after visiting numerous web sites over the past few weeks in search of new developments in the vision field, I'm sorry to say that too many companies are simply paying lip service to this technology rather than actually taking advantage of the benefits that it could potentially offer.

In many cases, it would appear that while such companies may have been initially excited by the potential that the technology offered a few years ago, today they have actually abandoned the idea that the interweb is of any use at all.

On one site that I visited recently, for example, I clicked on a specific link to see what new applications that a particular vision systems integrator might have been involved with, only to be taken to a page with a rather grotesque image and a caption that read "Your Page Has Been Hacked by Tony".

While that was the most extreme example of company negligence that I found, there were plenty of others. On another systems integrator's web site, there were a host of links to case studies. Sadly, however, all of them took me to web pages that simply read "Page Not Found".

Now you might think that this sort of thing only applies to small to medium sized enterprises. But you'd be wrong. When attempting to email the marketing department of a large robotics company, my email client informed me that my message had been returned due to the fact that no such email address could be found.

After looking at your own web site, perhaps you might also find that it is also lacking in certain functionality. And if you do, there are a couple of things that you can do about it.

On one hand, you might consider outsourcing the maintenance of the site to an external developer who will be able to consistently ensure that your site remains free from hackers and entirely functional. Alternatively, you could consider hiring an individual at your company whose sole responsibility it is to maintain your web site.

Allocating a specific resource to manage your web site might make a lot of difference to the experience of any new potential customers. But be careful to ensure that you map out the specific goals that you are trying to achieve before embarking on any venture, just as you would when specifying the design of a new vision system.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Burka foils thermal imager

Over the past few years, thermal imaging cameras have been used to locate people by capturing images of the heat emitted by their bodies.

That's because, of course, that when viewed through a thermal imaging camera, warm objects stand out well against cooler backgrounds, hence humans become easily visible against the environment.

Now, due to the miniaturization of electronic and electro-mechanical components, such infra-red cameras can be easily mounted onto inexpensive small unmanned aerial vehicles that can be used by the police forces to assist with public safety missions.

Although relatively few of such drones are currently flown over US soil, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that 30,000 drones will fill the nation's skies in less than 20 years.

However, some Members of Congress and the public fear there are insufficient safeguards in place to ensure that drones are not used to spy on American citizens and unduly infringe upon their fundamental privacy.

Proponents have responded by emphasizing their potential benefits, which may include protecting public safety, patrolling borders, and investigating and enforcing environmental and criminal law violations.

Clothes designer Adam Harvey  is one individual that falls into the former camp. It's clear that he thinks that thermal imaging systems mounted on drones are a threat to our civil liberties. And his concern with protecting the privacy of individuals has now led him to create a range of so-called 'Anti-Drone' garments designed with a fabric that apparently protects the wearer against thermal imaging surveillance.

They work by using highly metallized fibers to reflect heat, thereby masking the wearer's thermal signature. Of the three 'Anti-Drone' pieces that have been created so far, two are inspired by Muslim dress: the burqa and the scarf. A third piece -- the hoodie -- is intended to thwart overhead thermal surveillance from drones.

While I'm as concerned about protecting the privacy of the public as anyone else, I can't help but think that Mr. Harvey may not have thought his idea out quite as thoroughly as he should.

You see, while the metalized fiber burka shown above might well reduce the chances that an individual is spotted by a thermal imager mounted in a police drone, it will certainly increase the chances that the individual will be spotted by police on the ground, since he or she will stick out like a sore thumb.

Reference: Drones in Domestic Surveillance Operations: Fourth Amendment Implications and Legislative by Richard M. Thompson II.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Vision can help clear landmines

The United Nations estimates that there are more than 110m landmines scattered in 70 countries and, using current technologies, it would take over 1100 years and more than $33bn to clear them.

To help speed up the process, the UK-based Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has formed a partnership with Find A Better Way (FABW) -- a charity founded by Sir Bobby Charlton -- to fund one or more research projects focused on new ways of detecting landmines.

During a recent event held at Lloyds of London, the organizations jointly launched a call for outlines for those wishing to submit full proposals for projects, lasting between one to four years, to address research challenges in areas of landmine detection.

FABW is making around £1m available for the research and it is expected that many individuals will have research ideas to contribute. FABW aims to develop technology to accelerate the detection and safe removal of landmines globally.

The outfits are looking for research proposals which will lead to the development -- within a seven-year timescale -- of new technologies able to make the process of detecting and locating landmines for humanitarian clearance faster, cheaper and safer.

Clearly, there's scope here for those involved in the world of vision systems to make a significant contribution to these efforts. Outside the UK, many researchers such as Roger Achkar from the America University of Science and Technology (Beirut, Lebanon), for example, have already done so.

Last year, Achkar disclosed that his team had developed a robot that captures images of contaminated areas which are then processed by an artificial neural network to classify both the make and model of landmines. The results of his research work can be found here.

But clearly, a lot more work needs to be done and the new initiative is a welcome step in the right direction. Those interested in the project can find a list of organizations and individuals who are eligible to apply for funding here. The closing date for submission of outlines is March 25 2013.

More information on the project itself can be found on the EPSRC web site here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Free app captures drunk drivers

Frank Vahid, a computer science professor in the Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California, Riverside (UCR; Riverside, CA, USA) has created a new smart-phone app to help eradicate problems caused by drunk drivers.

The professor developed the app after realizing that while the police always ask individuals for the license plate of vehicles potentially being driven by drunks, it's not always easy for them to provide such details. And that's where the new smart phone app comes into its own.

After downloading the free Android and iPhone app called DuiCam, all a driver needs to do is mount their smart-phone on the dashboard of their car. Once fired up, the app will then enable the smart-phone to constantly record what is happening in front of the car, while deleting footage after 30 minutes so the memory on the smart-phone isn't overwhelmed.

If app users see what looks like a drunk driver, they can then replay the video and zoom in to look at the license plate and other identifying marks on the offending car which they can pass on to the police. The app even makes it possible to email a snapshot or the entire video to help investigators get the driver off the road.

Five years ago, the technology for such an app wasn't widely available, but now virtually every cell phone has a good quality camera, and many people already have mounts for their dashboards or windshields, so they can easily use the camera feature on their smart-phone.

Professor Vahid and UCR computer science majors Timothy Cherney and Daniel de Haas -- the students who programmed the new DuiCam app -- are now adding more features, such as automatic license plate recognition.

I think that there is a lot of potential in this idea. Imagine, for example, that future versions of the app could automatically categorize (with reasonable accuracy, of course!) the sort of driving behavior that is deemed to be representative of a drunk driver and then automatically send the license plate number it captures and identifies to the nearest police vehicle!

That would truly make those folks who are still foolish enough to drive after having imbibed a few cocktails to think twice before getting in their vehicles.

If you like the professor's idea and would like to help sponsor further development, you can email him at, and/or give directly at the UCR donation page.

Information on the app is available at Readers can download the iPhone version here and the Android version here.

Related items from Vision Systems Design.

1. Vision system helps curb drunken drivers

Drunk driving may soon become a thing of the past thanks to a face-recognition program developed by a pair of University of Windsor (Windsor, Ontario, Canada) engineering graduate students.

2. Thermal imaging software detects drunks

Greek researchers have developed software to analyze images from thermal imaging cameras to objectively determine whether a person has consumed an excessive amount of alcohol.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Acoustic systems design

The pain associated with a kidney stone can be very severe. As anyone who has ever had one will testify, the pain tends to come in waves and can be so great that it can cause individuals to double over in agony.

Medical professionals recognize the symptoms caused by such stones, after which they usually perform an x-ray scan to determine their location and size. When the x-rays pass through soft body tissues, they cause the x-ray film to turn black. But when a calcium stone is present the x-ray cannot pass through it and the image of the stone shows up as white on the x-ray image.

If kidney stones cannot be dissolved by drugs, the favored procedure is lithotripsy. Lithotripsy works by focusing shock waves onto the kidney stones in an effort to break them into pieces small enough to pass out of the body. After the procedure, another x-ray is taken to see if the procedure has been successful in clearing the kidney stone.

Now, researchers in the UK led by Professor Tim Leighton from Southampton University (Southampton, UK) in collaboration with Guy's and St Thomas' Foundation Trust (GSTT) and Precision Acoustics (Dorchester, UK) have developed an acoustic instrument called the "smart stethoscope" that also aims to assess whether the lithotripsy treatment is working, obviating the need for more x-rays.

In operation, a transducer is placed on a patient's skin as they undergo shock wave treatment for kidney stones, and the smart stethoscope system the transducer is attached to analyzes the characteristics of the acoustic signals from the stone after each shock wave has hit it. By doing so, it can determine whether the treatment has been effective or not at breaking it up.

According to Dr. Fiammetta Fedele of GSTT, the instrument has diagnosed successful treatments with 94.7 per cent accuracy in clinical trials. The UK National Health Service (NHS) is now trialing the smart stethoscope as part of major plans to reduce inaccurate diagnoses and ineffective treatments, and so far GSTT has used the sensor on over 200 patients.

What fascinates me most about this development is that is that it represents an acoustic alternative to a well established tried and tested imaging approach that has served the medical field well for years.

Of course, characterizing materials and products by analyzing their acoustic properties in industrial settings is nothing new. However, it's usually the case that such acoustic scanning systems are deployed because of their unique abilities to find hidden defects within assemblies and materials that can occur during manufacturing, characteristics that pure vision-based systems are unable to spot.

But the work by the UK researchers at Southampton University shows that there is scope to develop such acoustic systems in industry as a direct replacement for vision-based inspection systems. And I'd be pleased to hear from any of our readers who might have done just that.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Boredom has its benefits

Most of the engineers I know who design and build vision-based systems would describe their work as creative and intellectually challenging. And although their jobs might often be frustrating and exasperating, few of them would describe their work as anything but boring.

However, while most of us might think of being bored at work as a negative experience, a new study suggests it can have positive results including an increase in creativity -- simply because it gives us time to daydream.

That is the finding of a study being presented today by Dr. Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman from the University of Central Lancashire (Preston, UK) at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology.

To reach their conclusion, Dr. Mann and Ms. Cadman conducted two studies. In the first, 40 people were asked to carry out a boring task (copying numbers out of a telephone directory) for 15 minutes, and were then asked to complete another task (coming up with different uses for a pair of polystyrene cups) that gave them a chance to display their creativity.

It transpired that the 40 people who had first copied out the telephone numbers were more creative than a control group of 40 who had just been asked to come up with uses for the cups.

To see if daydreaming was a factor in this effect, a second boring task was introduced that allowed even more daydreaming than the boring writing task. This second study saw 30 people copying out the numbers as before, but also included a second group of 30 reading rather than writing them.

Again the researchers found that the people in the control group were least creative, but the people who read the names were more creative than those who had to write them out. This suggests that more passive boring activities -- like reading or perhaps attending meetings -- can lead to more creativity, whereas writing, by reducing the scope for daydreaming, reduces the creativity-enhancing effects of boredom.

Dr. Mann believes that boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but she thinks that it may now be time to embrace it to enhance our creativity.

So the next time that you are stuck for a novel solution to one of your customer's automated inspection tasks, perhaps you should take some time out to attend a meeting, read out numbers from the telephone directory or catch up on filing some old reports. If Dr. Mann is right, just 15 minutes spent doing so might work wonders!