Side-on, it looks like a monochrome owl drawn by Picasso. But the iSTAR has four lenses in a robust box no bigger than an ancient Box Brownie camera. To many, it’s an object of stark beauty. It is also digital technology that could re-shape how we see our world.
Tucked away in Braid Road, near the Morningside station clock in Edinburgh, is an amazing business that – given a good head of wind – is ready to flourish in 2015. The roll-call of companies keen to find out more about NCTech’s iSTAR and its sensor technology is outstanding; Google, Sky TV, Pinewood Studios, UEFA, the FBI, the MoD, and China’s equivalent of StreetView.
The camera can even be mounted on a vehicle, lined to a GPS position system and can be used for high-resolution 360° mobile street mapping. The founders are Cameron Ure, the chief executive, and Neil Tocher, the chief technical officer, and they have gone through the full gamut of emotion to build the iSTAR. It has not been easy and there have been detours and delays, but the company is moving into a marketplace where the demand for 360° vision is increasing rapidly.
The iSTAR is an easy-to-use panoramic camera delivering high resolution images in seconds. Its laser precision is a key selling point, as it captures images in high resolution, so that this data can be collected and used in a number of industries and formats. But the Edinburgh-based brains have added another proprietary software layer to this device which works with laser-measurements for fast capture of data. This means it can stitch images together with 3D laser distance scanning used by surveyors, architects, and designers. And NCTech sees new applications with Building Information Modelling (BIM) which shows potential customers what a building will look like.
NCTech is coy about who it has been speaking to about such applications, but we can say that defence and security services are keen. “All we can say is that we are working with a lot of agencies here in the UK and in the United States. But our main markets in 2015 will be in more commercial activities, with interest from China and the United States. We’ve also been working on the wider over-lay market, especially in laser scanning,” said Neil.
Neil and Cameron, both in their early 40s, have been working for nearly 20 years together in the sphere of 360° cameras, first used to show house hunters the layout of homes on estate agent websites.
“When we built iSTAR we initially specced it as high resolution as possible for the opportunities. We are much further down the track now. While we wanted this to be as robust and as fast as possible for the military and the police, our experience with 360° cameras gave us a wealth of knowledge about the market and what products were out there. We knew the pitfalls and the flaws, and with the iSTAR, we’ve been able to get rid of many flaws, and we have made a very precise and accurate product. It is 2microns of accuracy. Every product is machined from solid metal.”
It hasn’t been an easy ride developing such a revolutionary piece of kit. Originally NCTech wanted to outsource production and assembly of the camera, but alarm bells rang with minor flaws in the early prototypes. So Cameron and Neil decided to take control of their own production, which meant recruiting and employing an engineering and software team in Edinburgh. It was a rocky time.
“It was all hands to get our first units out in the last weeks of 2012. In 2013, we shipped our first 100 iSTAR units.” But there were still teething problems in these early months with calibrating the sensors, and it has taken extra time to get the camera pin-sharp.
“It took us time to figure this out and it was good that we had our own technical team here to work this through. Our own engineering team helped with these initial units. We found that a tiny, single component from a supplier was not robust enough and this meant we had to recall our cameras and fix the problem. We got them back out again and they are all working perfectly,” says Cameron.
Indeed the iSTAR camera is a stunning piece of digital engineering, with outstanding results. But it is the range of applications for this 3D camera that is making it such an attractive product. “Our view is that if it was easy, then it would have been done before. It is always the hard things that take the extra effort. 2013 was a hard year for us and our investors and we had to batten down the hatches.”
The company, with 12 people, has built an impressive team with Dr Mansour Ahmadian, head of engineering, Claire Morand, lead software engineer who joined in 2014, and David Munro, the lead electronics engineer. The commercial team has been bolstered by Andrew Baddeley, who worked for BAE Systems and had his own panoramic business, who has been joined by commercial director Chris Dryden, formerly of 3D Scanners, which was sold to Nikon Metrology. Chris will be working in the US and Asia.
In 2014, the iSTAR development continued but it was vital to ramp up production to meet the demand for this revolutionary apparatus.
“This year has been good and we’ve now started to roll out the camera in numbers.” For NCTech’s potential customers, the issues that required an iSTAR camera had not gone away, indeed it is growing. For example, the nuclear industry was interested in buying a whole set of cameras which it inserts into the radioactive pipework of power plants to check for any cracks in the pipes in 360°, high definition. This has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of pounds on inspections, and so the customers agreed to wait to get their
“This project is still on the go and it is about working with these partners and keeping them up-to-speed about delivery. Overtime, our technology and hardware has gone from strength to strength. We’ve put a lot of effort into developing the software to match the iSTARs,” says Neil. Cameron Ure explains why the £4,000 camera is useful to the nuclear plants. “You can spend a lot of time putting lead around it. But the point is that our camera will save time. Our camera will do its job and then it will die. It will not survive in this harsh environment. They will get a few uses out of it and then as any radio-active dust catches it, then they have to dispose of it.”
While the military, security, police and nuclear were keen to be early adopters, the engineering and construction industry now sees this as a brilliant tool.
“They have latched onto us and see us as a perfect product to complement laser scanning, which is a totally different sector than where we were looking originally. Laser scanning has evolved in the last decade and is already one of our biggest sectors because of the emerging nature of building design and architecture. It is exploding and we’re on the back of that. They have bigger budget in this area and there are more of them,” says Neil.
NCTech has pushed into this measurement market where the likes of camera-makers Leica Geosystems, Trimble, TopCon, and Faro are market leaders with complex laser machines, from £35,000 to £100,000, and NCTech have developed ColourCloud software to suit.
“For the last year, we’ve put significant effort into ensuring that this product ticks a lot of the boxes in the engineering sector working with laser scanners and as a separate product which complements what they do,” says Neil.
Each 360° laser scan involves millions of points of measurement – known as geospatial measurement – which are then put on a computer to create an accurately-mapped 3D image, which looks like a reconstruction. But there is no actual colour information on this.
“Where we come in, we give colour to this data and this puts a real-world perspective on these measurements. The industry is really keen to have this done instantly. They can do it but the processes and workflow have been very difficult and time-consuming, up until we came along.
In the past you have been trying to match photography to highly accurate measurements, and it doesn’t match. This is where iSTAR comes in, because we have engineered it so accurately. It is automatic – you push the button the and our images are then matched to the laser information. That has never been done before.”
The proof is in the astounding quality of the iSTAR image which can be superbly overlaid by ColourCloud on the laser data. On a 360 ° tripod, the Leica C10 laser scanner takes approximately 20 minutes to capture 56 million points of data, while the iSTAR’s Fusion image in high definition takes 50 seconds. For ultra-high definition, it takes just over two minutes and every single dot from the laser scan has had a colour match. “It is not just a picture you are looking at but a 3D model. Our software can be used with others in the industry. You can also use the laser measurements in our picture too. This is a significant development for the industry because scanners cannot take pictures in the dark or low light,” says Cameron.
For the police, it means forensic photographers can take a 360° image of a crime scene, even when the only available light is from street lamps. It is so accurate that for motor accidents it can even make out the ripples in the concrete road surface, all precisely measured. Forensic Collision Investigators at Warwickshire Police use the camera at the scene of serious accidents. In June, an iSTAR was used in providing panoramic crime scene evidence for a Birmingham murder trial which resulted in the 26-year conviction of the murderer after a burglary.
“The camera sensors are aligned to pick up tiny targets down to individual pixels. It is because we have machined the camera so accurately and build the calibration software, we can take our image and map it to scans, often to 200 million points of data,” explains Neil. The next phase for NCTech is making the camera perform well in the mobile sector of engineering, mounted on a moving vehicle. While the optics are modified by NCTech, again it is the software that is ground-breaking. Both Cameron and Neil were in Shanghai in November speaking exclusively to a Chinese surveying company about street mapping. [‘China doesn’t have Google, or StreetView’, reminds Neil.] NCTech is also in advanced discussions with a large global company with the possibility to roll out tens of thousands of cameras, which will turbo-charge the company’s development.
“Our volumes are multi-million pound. We have a big production facility on an industrial estate in East Lothian. The lenses are made in Asia and shipped back to Scotland. We had to retain all the assembly and production to maintain our quality and we now have 80% of this in Scotland. We are looking at producing up to 500 cameras a month, some of this might be out in Asia,” says Cameron.
The two founders retain a large slice of the equity, but have had help from rounds of funding from Archangel Informal Investment, Scotland’s largest and longest-running angel group, and the Scottish Co-Investment Fund. Colin McGill is the NCTech chairman.
He was divisional chief executive with Bank of Scotland Corporate Banking before becoming an angel investor. Mike Rutterford, a co-founder of Archangels with Barry Sealey, had taken a table at the Entrepreneurial Exchange annual dinner in November 2011 and invited a number of people including Neil Tocher. Mike recalls the start-up didn’t have a chairman.
“I was enjoying the chat and the dinner and I spotted Colin McGill chatting to someone else. I thought, ‘Eureka’ and said to Neil and ‘you are sitting opposite your new chairman.’ Three weeks later he had joined the board.
Colin says: “It is a great business. The added value is the software and this is designed and made in Scotland. It is a very small company but the potential market is really big.”
Neil says: “The iSTAR is not a one-trick pony. It has to be as adaptable as possible and integrate into other systems. It has been flown on UAVs for example. China is interested in
this because precision farming is a big thing and it can use drones with iSTAR to monitor crops. We’ve got interest from Sky News and Google.”
Once production hits its target, the company will be in line for a £30-50m valuation – and then more. Most interestingly, NCTech is a niche business working alongside the biggest players, such as Faro, Trimble, TopCon and Leica Geosystems, and when the time is right, they are likely to have plenty of interest in buying the Scottish business. With angel investors always keen to gain a return on investment, a future trade sale might be in the offing. Neil adds: “All our customers realise that the iSTAR is a superior device. We’ve got something very special here but we have to keep developing.