ACS develops and supplies specialist camera solutions for an exceptionally wide range of applications including, for example, systems that operate from helicopters and from tethered helium balloons. Among the company’s most popular products, however, are the ACS railcam systems, which essentially comprise a track-mounted camera that can be moved at high speed and with great precision - these systems can be ground based or ‘flown.’
This arrangement means that the cameras can be used either to closely follow the action in a sporting event, or to provide dynamic and engaging views of subjects that are inherently more static, such as stage performances by singers and groups. ACS rail camera systems are currently in great demand by both film and television producers and the company’s long and impressive list of credits includes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as well as prestigious television shows such as The X Factor and Dancing on Ice.
The design and manufacture of high-performance rail camera systems presents many engineering challenges. To meet the needs of today’s users, the systems have to be capable of moving the cameras at high speed over long distances, while at the same time operating silently and without vibration. And, of course, reliability is crucial – a failure during a live broadcast would be little short of catastrophic and even in the case of items that are being recorded for use later, unplanned downtime is phenomenally expensive.
For these reasons, ACS has been a long-time user of igus dry-running linear and rotary bearings. These bearings, which are manufactured from innovative high-performance polymer materials, offer decisive advantages compared to conventional metal bearings, and many of these advantages are of particular importance in ACS’s specialised applications.
The igus bearings are, for example, much more resistant to the effects of moisture and contamination than conventional products, which is important when the ACS camera rigs are used on location. In addition, the bearings require no lubrication or other maintenance, they have a very wide operating temperature range and, even when loaded to their full design rating, they have a long and predictable working life. Finally, they offer smooth running, even in the presence of contaminants, and they are virtually silent in operation.
Bearings are, however, not the only products from igus that ACS has found invaluable for use in its rail camera systems. Cable connections to the camera are essential to supply power and to transmit video and control signals, but it is no trivial task to arrange for the cables, which are typically a mixture of copper and fibre-optic types, to be carried reliably while the camera is moving at high speed.
After carefully investigating a number of possible alternatives, ACS ultimately decided that the igus energy chain systems offered by far the best solution for these applications. igus energy chains, which like the company’s bearings are manufactured from high-performance polymer materials, are versatile, articulated cable carrier systems essentially comprising a series of links, the pitch of which is very short giving very low levels of noise and vibration. The energy chains can be easily opened and closed so that cables can be added or swapped as required.
In the ACS rail camera applications, the energy chain runs alongside the track on which the camera runs. While this cable support system may sound simple in principle, in this application it has to cope with very testing demands. ACS tracks operate at speeds of up to 10 metres per second with an overall travel of 100 metres or more. In addition, they are required to accelerate and decelerate very rapidly and the motion of the camera must, of course, always be matched by the energy chain.
Further, the camera systems are not always used in the comfortable environment of a television or film studio – outdoor applications at sporting events are almost as common and often involve extreme conditions. ACS systems used at recent Winter Olympics events have, for example, been required to operate reliably at temperatures as low as -20 degC.
“One of the most impressive features of igus products is that they never seem to wear out,” said Malcolm Rogers, Head of Tracks at ACS. “We work them hard, often in tough conditions, yet they’re always reliable and they just seem to go on and on. Possibly a contributing factor to achieving this outstanding performance is the excellent advice we’ve always received from igus about how to choose the right products for a particular application and how best to use them.”
“For more than two decades,” he continued, “igus has been supplying us with superb products backed up by excellent service, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this has made an important contribution. We’re very happy with igus and its innovative products, and we confidently expect to be using them for at least another two decades!”