Robotic camera systems have become increasingly familiar presences in news, sports and current affairs studios where anchors, hosts and interviewers are seated or the movement of the subject is limited. Robotics offers a more consistent and visually appealing program look and furnishes huge benefits in financial terms with significant cost savings in high usage studios. It is even possible to integrate new robotic equipment with legacy gear, thus extending the life of the system.
The application and existing physical properties of the camera systems are central factors when selecting the most suitable robotic camera system. These considerations are outlined below, along with the key building blocks of robotic camera systems:
PAN & TILT HEADS
The payload of the head must be sufficient to accommodate all of the equipment which needs to be mounted. Typical studio configurations include cameras, lenses, viewfinders, prompters, zoom and focus hand controls, mounting plates and, occasionally, additional monitors for the on-air talent.
It is desirable to allow for manual operation of the cameras in some studios, especially if programs unsuitable for robotic operation are to be produced from time to time. In this case, manual control of the pan and tilt head should be possible, including variable fluid damping as well as lockable brakes. Switching into and out of manual operation should not result in any unwanted movement of the pan and tilt head.
If the robotics system is to be used in a virtual studio, either immediately or in the future, it should be fitted with the necessary high-resolution encoders from day one.
Ideally, the robotic system should be able to drive the conventional zoom and focus servos supplied by the lens manufacturer. With ENG lenses, if extremely accurate and smooth lens movement is required and the existing lens mechanics have been worn, it may be necessary to fit special zoom and focus lens drives, supplied with the robotic camera system.
Robotic control of camera height extends the possibilities for camera shots, offering greater freedom to directors and operators. If “on-air” height control is required, adding a height servomechanism to your existing studio pedestals is advisable. These usually clamp on to the pedestal without requiring any onsite modifications to the pedestal. It is important to check that operation of the steering ring is not inhibited in any way by this device.
Robotic pedestals are required if there are a number of sets in the studio and it is necessary to reposition the cameras quickly during the program. It is important, however, to consider whether the substantial additional cost and the complexity of this equipment negate these benefits.
The key points to look out for include:
- Navigation: In order to provide the shot repeatability necessary, the robot will require an accurate navigation system. While X and Y positional accuracy is important, accurate measurement of the orientation angle of the robot’s base is the overriding concern: A small inaccuracy in this will result in a significant X and Y error, even on a short move of 10 feet, and stored shots will not be properly reproduced.
- Safety: The robot should be fitted with sensors that can detect obstructions such as parts of the set, floor monitors and especially production staff. This sensor system should automatically halt the robots’ movement before a collision.
- Manual operation: The potential for manual operation affords the greatest effectiveness, allowing for the robot to be handled in the same way as the conventional studio pedestal. As a minimum, it must be possible to reposition the robot manually without power, thus allowing limited operation in a fault situation and minimizing the disruption caused by any power loss.
It should be possible to control multiple cameras from a robotic control system, with most models controlling eight cameras and the newer systems, particularly Ethernet-based ones, extending this further.
All systems will provide shot setting and trimming with joysticks or similar controls, shot storage and replay of multiple shots. For studio use, touch screen control systems are the most user friendly, especially where stored shots are identified by screen-grabbed images from the camera under control. Operators benefit significantly from the different display modes, which enable them to select the most convenient display format for the program and are suited to their individual way of working.
Careful selection of a control system and the system architecture is paramount: A single weak point in the system could jeopardize the control held over all the cameras in a studio. The system must therefore be resilient after failures or include a separate backup control system, capable of controlling the cameras in the event of a failure of the main system.
It is also important to consider whether a robotics system is compatible with other manufacturers’ equipment and able to be controlled by or to control it. Shotoku prioritized this feature during the development of its products, enabling customers to simultaneously integrate new equipment into their studios while extending the life of their legacy systems. All of the company’s control panels are therefore capable of driving other manufacturers’ pan/tilt heads, and all Shotoku pan/tilt heads seamlessly integrate with other control panels.
Finally, it is advisable to select equipment from a manufacturer that is prepared to both tailor a system to the equipment that you require to support and design the configuration and operation of the system to meet your specific operational and program requirements.
Mike Wolfe is managing director of Shotoku Ltd. (www.shotoku.tv).