The story of a small camera

Today marks an important moment in the development of this product, as today is the day I committed to manufacturing the batch. There is no going back now.

I’ve just finished paying a few key suppliers for some long lead time components. One of them is a camera. Here is its story.

This begins in 2015, when I first sent an email to an OnSemi salesperson, or maybe I filled out a form on its website, I can’t remember. I was reaching out to several possible suppliers at the time as I was first dipping my toes into this venture. Most of them never got back to me. As a tiny fish with no experience you aren’t worth anything to them, so when I never heard back I thought that was it. OnSemi had recently acquired Aptina, pretty much one of two camera sensors manufacturers in the world. The other is OmniVision and those guys dealt in even higher volumes (I will pretend Sony doesn’t exists as that’s a different planet entirely).

Then, one day, two months later, as I was checking my emails, bored in a basement classroom in DIT (such was my surprise I still remember the moment clearly), I got an email from OnSemi asking to sign an NDA for accessing the Image Sensor Portal, that is pretty much all of the datasheets, reference manuals, registers, etc. for the Aptina lineup. I thanked the person that emailed me many many many times pretending like I was cool and I could do without them, sent over the signed NDA (still uncertain as to whatever I would have heard from the guy ever again), and a few days later I had access to the documents.

I could now develop using Aptina sensors. Cool, right? Well… Let’s say expensive is a better term.

The Aptina chips I ended up using for the 1.3 GHz batch were the AR0132, a 720p HDR sensor and the AP0100, an Image Signal Processor, whose job is pretty much taking the video out of the camera and making it likeable to the human eye with subtle details like white balancing. Some hardware limitations I won’t get into didn’t allow me to do white balancing inside the chip receiving that video stream.

Those chips were around $30 and $13 each (source: octopart), so $43 going down the drain in camera chips alone. That doesn’t include connector, cable*, board, assembly, enclosure, lenses. Let’s leave it at expensive and let’s say that camera was $80 a piece in cost.

Now, if you are planning on spending more money and time in making a 2.4 GHz version of your product, you better have a plan to lower that cost. The plan included begging OmniVision, whose sensors are cheaper, and did result in a signed NDA with them as well (Yippee!), but this is not where this story is going. The HDR sensor here is still from OnSemi.

The winner today is called AS0140, which is a single chip solution with sensor and processor, all in one single chip. It’s mostly used as a rear view camera for high end vehicles, so you can thank people with expensive cars for this chip’s existence.

Now, as you can imagine, people making cars don’t make them 10 at the time so the minimum order quantity for this chip last year was 2970 units. Digikey lists them at $15 a piece, so that’s a cool $45k if you want to use that camera. Reaching out to my sales contact didn’t help and no one had it in stock in lower quantities.

3k units is way too high and I couldn’t afford spending 45k in expensive silicon, so that was it. Again. Or so I thought, because I did just place an order for it with a supplier that had it in stock and was ok with selling to a mere mortal, so there was a way, one way that didn’t include any of the simpler channels, that is not listed on octopart and didn’t pass through Asia. The answer was cold emailing people.

I guess not giving up pays off, some times. But only some times.

The rest of the story was as simple as purchasing a $300 development board to add on top of something else you paid $780 for, and you are all set.

Here is what that looks like:

*The KEL microcoaxial camera cable was something ridiculous like $10 a piece and 3 months in lead time, which they didn’t even met.

Intermission – Showing the system working far away is only a way of proving it will play so much better at closer range

I keep getting this. This isn’t designed for ultra long range FPV. Sure, it’s so good that as shown, it can do that. But that’s not what this is all about.

This product is about having an ultra low latency, very reliable 2.4 GHz video link with RC and Mavlink. The applications?

  • Controlling aerial cinematography drones where you can switch between the HDMI camera and our own custom (piloting) camera, or if you want, two HDMI cameras (why would you do that? Well, now you can).
    • The HDMI input board cable is so long and flexible it will be able to go around a stabilised gimbal without interfering with it. It will be a breeze. Wait for it to be shown here.
  • The big majority of the “zero delay” broadcast market, where the average product is a $3000 metal brick with a 300-foot range and they forget to tell you yes, transmission latency is 1 milliseconds instead of our 25 milliseconds but camera latency is usually at least 100 ms, so you are paying an extra  $2500 to have 101 ms instead of 125 ms worth of latency. That has to be the best marketing ever.
  • Surveying fields and running YOLO (You Only Look Once) on the ground HDMI out (yes, some crazy people that are maybe reading actually play with this).
  • Sure, FPV. Anything but ultra crazy fast drone racing where people actually notice a 30 vs 45 ms latency difference. Good luck cracking that nut.
  • ???. You can help me fill in this field in the comments because honestly, there are so many of them.

Closer range tests are coming but I’m extremely busy working full time on this thing so that I can show you renderings of the product and convince you to finally put in that preorder.

PayPal freezing payments on the 22th of June (and maybe earlier than that)

First off, no reason to worry. This was expected and planned for as explained in the “Why preorders and why now” post.

I guess those preorders must be even so slightly successful for PayPal to finally freeze the account. This morning I woke up to:

One of the steps required is proof the orders actually shipped. Funny thing is, this didn’t happen last time as the product was in stock, so either a human or a ML algorithm correctly decided we are running preorders.

As you can imagine I can’t provide proof of shipment for a product that didn’t ship, so I can’t unfreeze the funds, so PayPal is going to be my long term bank deposit I didn’t ask for for a while now.

The next step is for PayPal to freeze deposits as well.

This will happen either in 40 days “or if we notice additional changes in your account activity”, which I guess means more preorders.

In other words, the PayPal payment option is fading and doing so fast. If you want to pay using that option the window to do so is closing. If you want to make sure I can’t access your money before shipment, that is also the way to go.

100mW and 700mW range test results (using non directional antennas)

Why release a single video when you can release two at the same time?
Both are showing the system working using dipoles – no high gain directional antennas increasing range!

A word of advice: the 700mW video was filmed with out of focus lenses. A real shame, so make sure to watch both of them!

The 700mW video is is the only one where the system is far away enough to failsafe (trading video quality for range moving to a narrower bandwidth), so editing focused on showing that behaviour.

There is a lot that can be worked on via software changes, this is just setting some limits on performances to be expected but framerate and recovery/general behaviour will keep on improving. This is just the result after a few times out of the lab, after all.