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UK blocks Chinese vision sensing technology deal

Business news |
By Nick Flaherty


The UK government has blocked a deal to supply vision sensing technology to China.

The deal with the University of Manchester for the SCAMP-5 and SCAMP-7 vision sensing technology has been blocked on grounds of national security. This would have seen Beijing Infinite Vision Technology license intellectual property relating to SCAMP-5 and SCAMP7 vision sensing technology to develop, test and verify, manufacture, use, and sell licenced products.

This marks a stepping up of the UK government’s concerns about deals with China, following the blocking the sale of a graphene maker in Wales and still assessing the acquisition of the Newport Wafer Fab by Nexperia.

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The SCAMP Vision Sensor integrates a massively parallel SIMD processor array into the pixels of the image sensor device. Unlike a conventional image sensor, it does not output raw images, but rather the results of on-sensor computations, for instance a feature map, optic flow map and/or address-events describing locations of pixels of interest.

The SCAMP-5 vision chip contains a 256×256 processor array, operating in a SIMD mode, with one processing element per image pixel. Each of the 65,536 processors contains six analog registers (capable of storing a real-valued variable, e.g. a gray-level pixel value), 13 bits digital memory, and circuits for performing arithmetic and logic operations on the local data, as well as neighbourhood operations.

It also contains hardware accelerators for asynchronous binary flood-fill and spatial gray-scale low-pass filters, as well as control and I/O circuits. The processing elements execute instructions broadcast to the entire array from a common controller, with local autonomy provided via an ativity flag. The photosensor circuit is tightly coupled to the processor. 

Mixed-mode datapath allows the execution of some operations in the analog domain, achieving low-power and bypassing the need for A/D conversion.

The chip, developed in 2013, is built in 180nm CMOS and can carry out over 500 GOPS (billion operations per second) at power consumption below 1W. We have demonstrated processing speeds up to 100,000 fps (frames per second), although a typical high-speed operation in a robotic application may be at 1000s fps or less. The power depends on the processing load, i.e. the algorithm and frame rate, and can be  below 1 mW for simple low frame-rate operations.

The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng, made a final order under the National Security and Investment Act 2021. He considers that the technology set out in the licence agreement has dual-use applications and there is potential that the technology could be used to build defence or technological capabilities which may present national security risk to the UK.

www.gov.uk; personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/p.dudek/scamp/

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