Published: Oct. 1, 2013
MESA Imaging SA

3D Cameras That Milk Cows

Robotic milking machines, interactive games used in physiotherapy, and a brand new type of white cane all have one thing in common: a built-in 3D camera, made by Zurich-based MESA Imaging.

At milking time, the cow deliberately walks into the stable where there is a milking machine. The milking cups move to the udders, and the udders are cleaned and milked. Then the cow returns to the pasture. This is a fairly normal occurrence on a farm. But one thing is missing here: the farmer. Who herds the cows into the stable and who turns on the milking machine? In this scenario, the cow follows its own instinct and human hands have been replaced by the robotic milking machine.

Three-Dimensional Image 

A 3D camera allows the robotic milking machine to take people out of the picture. The camera detects the position of the teats so that the milking cups can be precisely attached to the udder. In essence, it is like an electronic eye. Every single pixel in the camera measures the time of flight: the time it takes for light to travel from the camera to the object and back. The camera uses these measurements to calculate the distance of every individual point of the object and produces a three-dimensional image. Distances are represented by different colors in the image. If an object moves closer to the camera, the time of flight becomes shorter and the color changes accordingly.

Mesa_2.jpg

Unforeseen Potential 

The robotic milking machine is just one example of the possible fields of use of the 3D camera. The technology has opened up new horizons with a range of application possibilities: doors on trains, safety locks, interactive physiotherapy games, and a newly developed white cane for the visually impaired. And the possibilities are seemingly endless, according to the company MESA Imaging. When Jim Lewis and five engineers from the Swiss research and development center CSEM founded MESA Imaging in 2006􀀏 they had no specific ideas as to which market segments the technology would be adopted. „We wanted to explore the possibilities of the camera”, says CEO Lewis. The company initially focused on working with research institutes and universities. Then, in 2008, it launched its first product, an industrial-grade 3D camera. „The challenge was that the camera had to function flawlessly not only in the lab, but outside it as well. It has to withstand various external factors 24 hours a day”, says Lewis. Some fifteen thousand cameras are in in service in a wide range of industries all over the world today, most notably in transportation, public health, and the agricultural sector.

Mesa_3.jpg

Aiming to Become a Self-Sustaining Company 

MESA builds and tests its cameras in Zurich. The company appreciates being based in Switzerland and hopes to remain there. “One drawback is that it is difficult to raise capital in Switzerland”, explains Lewis. This is why MESA turned to Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. in 2012. “With the investment of Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd., we hope to move one step closer to our goal of becoming a financially self-sustaining company by 2014”, he says. In the meantime, MESA will continue to improve upon their current product portfolio. The Zurich offices and on-site laboratory exude creativity – the space over-flows with camera parts and other mechanical objects such as the white cane with its integrated camera, and there is even a milking machine in the laboratory. The only thing missing is the cow.