Custom Visual Tools Help Bring Animatronic Creatures To Life
ESM Automation Systems – 2023 Firebrand Award Winner4 min video / 4 minute read
Creature Technology Company developed and implemented the C-Tech 2 system with support from ESM Automation Systems (AKA ESM Australia) and Inductive Automation. The system provides theatrical technicians and operators with simple visual tools to modify or create interaction and motion of complex animatronics figures without needing to access or be experts in PLC, motion, or SCADA programming.
The drag-and-drop interface offers a friendly and familiar way to pull dynamic functions from a palette to a workspace and draw links between them to create complex relationships. For this project, the data structures, functions, variables, relationships, and even screen layouts and tabbed views are linked to a PostgreSQL database.
Beckhoff industrial controllers, connected to the same database, interpret configurations in the database into logic and motion control settings. The logic and motion control settings are used in conjunction with motion profiles generated by studio animation tools to create fluid, lifelike movements, and interaction of animatronic creatures.
The timeline was very tight for this project, with an internal release required in 13 days and an MVP release in 31 days. This included using 26 views of the Vision-to-Perspective upgrade and the drag-and-drop view with detailed CSS styling. The drag-and-drop view needed to have six core functions:
- Tabbed Workspace
- File Operations
- Element Palette
- Parameter Edit Window
The drag-and-drop interface needed to be self-contained within Ignition; therefore no other external applications such as a React server could host the environment with Ignition just containing an inline frame. The scripting, which required use of an Ignition component such as a view canvas, would have taken too long and would potentially have functional limitations.
After surveying potential solutions, Creature Technology Company determined that a custom Ignition module using a React library to create a custom Perspective component would yield the best results. With the help of Inductive Automation’s Travis Cox, a custom module was built using the React Library’s React Flow Chart. The module contains two components: the draggable node and the chart. Both components utilize Perspective's embedded views for visualization on the chart. This enables full integration and use of Ignition’s features, e.g., pop-ups, tag bindings, etc.
The element palette is a database-driven flex repeater that contains all available elements as draggable nodes which can be dragged onto the chart. There are three categories of nodes: inputs, functions, and outputs. Inputs and outputs are linked to static elements, while the functions contain dynamic elements such as adders or setpoint select nodes. Each node is uniquely identified and has dynamically created tags. Once a node is removed its tags are also removed.
Nodes are displayed using a dynamic block template. Based on the database, a defined number of input and output ports, as well as custom local parameters, can either be exposed as an input or statically defined. Local parameters can be edited in a setting pop-up for each node. Ports can be linked using connectors to other nodes. Once a flow is completed from an input to an output element through any number of functions, a map is created to identify the order of execution for the Beckhoff controller. Lastly, for an improved user experience, tabbed workspaces and file operations were added to ensure operators can manage large animation programs more easily.
The C-Tech 2 control system builds on the flexibility and functionality of Creature Technology’s original C-Tech control system, resulting in a secure, modern, expandable, and commercially available hardware platform. By leveraging tried-and-tested industrial off-the-shelf components, the new system increases availability, boosts reliability, and improves product and component lifetime management.
The improved user experience has been lauded by end users, who express overwhelming appreciation for the new drag-and-drop view’s ease of use. Assessing the UI mockups next to the delivered system demonstrates that Perspective is the ideal environment to connect industrial hardware quickly into a web-based environment which can be accessed anywhere at any time.
The created module was designed for maximum flexibility — it can be adapted as a visual frontend or configuration tool within Perspective for a wide array of subsystems, such as Inductive Automation’s SFC Module or external orchestration platforms.
Creating custom components was never really on ESM’s radar prior to working on this project; however, this project demonstrates that the possibilities of Ignition as a platform are truly unlimited.
Deploy Date: March 2023
Tags: 83,500 + dynamic elements from drag-and-drop
Alarms: 2,400 + dynamic in session creation
Devices used: Beckhoff industrial controllers
Architectures used: Standard
Databases used: PostgreSQL
Historical data logged: 55,110
Created By: ESM Australia
ESM Australia was founded in 1996, originally to provide a repair service in the fields of industrial electronics for industry in Queensland and later around Australia. Today we have become recognized leaders in Industry 4.0, leading companies through the process of digitalization, allowing them to realize the potential gains that automation and data promises. ESM was the first integrator in Australia to reach Premier status with Inductive Automation, a status that requires the integrator to demonstrate a sizable body of advanced Ignition projects delivered, and a team of the highest credentialed engineers certified by Inductive Automation.
Project For: Creature Technology
Creature Technology Co. produces the most technologically sophisticated, creatively inspired and life-like animatronics for area spectaculars, theme parks, exhibitions, stage shows and events around the world. Founded in Melbourne, Australia in 2006, Creature Technology revolutionized animatronic entertainment through the production of Walking with Dinosaurs ‐ The Arena Spectacular. With a vision to emotionally connect an audience to a cast of prehistoric beasts, we used never‐before‐seen technology to set a new benchmark in storytelling through animatronics. Since then, our work has spanned the globe and the many genres of live entertainment.