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A Review of Imaging Devices - Part 1, Low Cost Sensors

Part 1 - We have a special and unusual perspective when it comes to understanding industrial camera technology.

As a business we work with mechanical handling partners to deliver factory automation systems that use sophisticated machine vision engineering. Obviously, our input is the machine vision aspect and this can take the form of a low cost vision sensor that looks for A or B and sends an output accordingly.  It can be surprising how such a 'simple' application can fail when it has not been properly thought through or implemented badly. Something so simple can be the difference between success and failure - with all the inherent commercial risk that goes along with it.

At the other end of the scale, we work with an excellent pool of machine builders to deliver very sophisticated systems using multiple cameras and/or 3D vision using our own technological developments. We design every installation intricately and ensure that the right hardware is selected for the job.

All this means that we understand imaging. In our quest for the perfect image, we have to select the right sensor and the right light source, for the two go hand in hand. So we have access to anything from a very low cost, circa £20 board camera for applications that use Raspberry Pi single board computers as an example, all the way up to a 3D Smart System with fully integrated light sources and embedded computing. 

This is the first in a series of camera technology reviews. Read on to find out about the lower end camera technologies that we supply, starting with the simplest and finishing with the more advanced, yet lowest cost devices available in the UK.

The USB2 Camera Shield£50
First, we need to introduce this little device in order to explain the lowest cost cameras. This is designed to allow you to experiment with different sensors - without the need to design PCBs or do any soldering. It is a USB2 interface converter with an 8 bit parallel IO connector to receive a range of camera breakout boards. You simply attach the camera breakout board - see the first example below - and hey presto! You have a fully fledged USB2 camera, complete with an onboard 8mb image buffer. You can pick and choose from a portfolio of image sensors from VGA up to 14MP and possibly higher. There is also a USB3 version available.
VGA Camera Breakout Board
Just need an image without high resolution at the lowest possible price? This is the lowest cost device in our camera portfolio. At £8 including a 6mm lens you won't find cheaper from a UK supplier. 
However, its low cost is helped by the fact that it does not have a USB interface. It's designed as a breakout board, meaning that you have to attach it to the aforementioned USB shield in order to connect it to a PC. Once you've done that, all these board cameras are UVC compliant.
2MP Camera Breakout Board£10
This interesting little breakout board camera is derived from mobile phone camera technology. So it includes a decent colour sensor and an integrated autofocus functionality. The board has an 8 bit parallel IO connector for use with the USB2 shield.
5MP Camera Breakout Board£25
Not enough resolution from a VGA breakout board? Then try this one with a 5mp sensor. This device uses an OV5642 1/4" sensor that is capable of 15 frames per second. Again, this camera board has an 8 bit IO connector so is interchangeable on the above USB2 shield. Of course, at this price you don't get a rolling shutter sensor. But it's good enough for many applications such as assembly verification, colour detection, face recognition or surveillance.
13MP Camera Board for RPi£50
Moving away from the camera breakout board kits, this camera is designed with single board computers in mind. The board contains a CSi (look for 'What is CSi?' in our FAQ section) and is an example of a number of these camera products with higher resolution sensors that can be used with the likes of Raspberry Pi and Nvidia Jetson.
8MP Stereo Camera Kit 
Yes, an 8MP stereo camera for £113. We have experimented with this as it comes with software to enable height map generation using the displacement between the two cameras. So it is a very cheap way of using image sensors for measuring distance (from the camera to the target), or 3D imaging. Designed for single board computers such as the Raspberry Pi. It could potentially be used to good effect on autonomous robotics, subsea, land or air!

These cameras are in stock, available for next day delivery in the UK. If you'd like some advice on your imaging application and are considering these devices for your application, please just call or email for a friendly discussion.