Canon Working on Built-in Radio Triggers for Wireless Flash

You had to know this one was coming, right?  For years now, DSLR manufacturers have been tied to wireless flash communication via  light-based transmission systems, which puts limits on the ability to take your flashes out of the line-of-sight of other flashes.  Of course, there are a plenty of workarounds – and there are third party solutions from the likes of PocketWizards and RadioPoppers.

But there has always been something missing with those other solutions.  Maybe it’s a little clunky to strap on those third-party devices?  Maybe there was some radio interference?  Something, however minor, just doesn’t quite function like the factory specs of the wireless flash system under ideal conditions.

A recently filed patent application with the USPTO reveals that Canon is working on a radio-based solution for its wireless flash system with transmitters built-in camera bodies. (See USPTO Appl. No. 12/700,098)

Canon Patent Figure

“The camera also includes a wireless antenna for transmitting and receiving data to/from a camera accessory such as an external flash unit, a remote control unit and the like using radio waves.

. . . . The flash unit . . . performs emitting control based on data from the camera.  The flash unit includes a wireless antenna for transmitting and receiving data to/from the camera using radio waves.”

Goodbye PocketWizards?  Hello 1Ds Mark IV?

I’m not sure about either of those questions, but if Canon has been saving a humdinger for its new flagship, then this sure would be a good candidate for a headline feature.

The patent application tells us that Canon’s proposed wireless flash system is based off of the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, which is more commonly known as a wireless standard applied for low-rate wireless personal area networks operating at 2.4GHz, 915MHz and 868MHz.  The 802.15.4 standard is the basis for the likes of the ZigBee specification, which these little chip antennas use to garner an impressive range of 300 feet (using the 2.4GHz band).

This is not a whole lot different in concept from the good ole 802.11 WiFi; however, power management, critical latency and cost are key concerns in the 802.15.4 standard, which makes it a seemingly ideal fit for something like TTL flash radio communication.

Below is a partial description of how the patent application describes the operation of this wireless flash system (skip on down to the summary if you don’t want to read all the patent-speak).

“If the power source of the camera is turned on, and the camera is set to flash emitting mode, the camera microcomputer of the camera controls the wireless communication circuit, scans channels across the wireless frequencies, and detects the flash unit which is the communication party. If the power source of the flash unit is turned on, similar to the camera, the flash unit controls the wireless communication circuit, sets the channel to be used, and sets itself to a state in which it can respond to the detection from the camera.

If the camera finds the flash unit based on the detection, the camera establishes a network by starting to issue a periodic beacon packet (beacon signal) as a network coordinator. The flash unit serves a role of a network device, and links with the camera as a communication party so that the camera and the flash unit can communicate at any time.

. . . .

The emitting command packet P1 includes a 4-bit code (e.g., “code 0001″) indicating the flash unit as transmission destination information, and an 8-bit code (e.g., “01011010”) which indicates that it is a emitting command packet. Further, the emitting command packet P1 includes a 4-bit code (e.g., “0001”) as timing information, indicating that it is the first emitting command packet.

. . . .

Consequently, synchronous imaging between the camera and the flash unit at the correct timing can be performed.

. . . .

[E]ven in a communication environment where a lot of interference is occurring and one out of several communication packets is lost, the reliability of the communication pathway is high, and the accuracy of the synchronization operation can be increased.

Consequently, a highly-reliable wireless flash system can be built without downgrading features such as flash synchronous speed, as compared with a cable-connected flash system and a clip-on type flash system.”

So, what Canon is getting at here is radio communication between its cameras and flashes in what would, hopefully, be a more reliable manner than the current light-transmission method and maybe even edge out what RadioPopper and PocketWizard have been doing.  It certainly would be attractive to buy a camera with that feature built-in.

And, shouldn’t we already be able to do that – it’s 2010 for cryin’ out loud.  Just like the video features though, leave it to start-ups and third-parties to push the envelopes to get the big manufacturers to take note of what we want and use in our cameras.

Canon Radio Trigger Multi-Flash Multi-Camera

What’s more, the patent application further discusses the ability to remotely trigger one or more camera bodies using the same wireless radio tech via a single remote control unit.  In the example provided in the application,

“a wireless communication circuit and a wireless antenna are built into the three cameras, the three flash units, and the remote control unit, thereby enabling wireless communication. In the present exemplary embodiment, the remote control unit serves as the master device, and the three cameras  and the three flash units serve as slave devices. The three flash units are emitted simultaneously based on an operation from the remote control unit, so that the three cameras are simultaneously released and flash synchronous imaging is performed.

When the release operation of the remote control unit is carried out, the imaging sequence is performed, and flash synchronous imaging is performed.”

It’s about time Canon.  This is one patent application that needs to find its way into a product, and soon.  If the aftermarket has shown us anything, it’s that this tech is important to how a whole lot of photographers work.

Are you listening Nikon?  You’ve been rocking Canon’s world for years now with the Nikon CLS.  Don’t get caught with your pants down on this one.

While Canon finally shook things up a bit last year with the Canon 7D and its wireless flash triggering capabilities via the pop-up flash (something Nikon has done for years on prosumer models), this built-in radio stuff changes the game – or at least catches it up to what the aftermarket has been pushing the boundaries with for a while.

Cue the announcement whenever you’re ready Canon.  We’re waiting.

[via USPTO]



  1. forkboy1965 says

    So what are we saying here? Should I not invest in some PW or RadioPoppers? Is this technology going to be found only in the pro model camera bodies and flashes?

    That’s what I’m afraid of. That this technology, while welcome, will be at the high-end only. I guess I will make the investment after all.

    • says

      @forkboy – I see this tech coming to the high-end first (if it’s coming at all) and then trickling down to lower end models over the next few years. Canon might even cut off the Rebel line, or the xxD line, from getting this tech and keep it a higher-end feature – kinda like Nikon has done with pop-up master flash for the D90 and higher models.

      Of course, I’m just spit balling here and your guess is probably as good as mine.

  2. florian says

    They could make “S” models of each camera, ie “studio” so that if you wanted one with this you can buy the “S” else not. Maybe even then an STE3 is possible for backward compat. But seeing canon, not sure how fast they will move and how well they think it out.

  3. Allan says

    No, it will not be in the 1Ds MkIV.
    Having this wireless system included in the soon to be released camera without the patent granted is business suicide, and reputation.
    Think about the pain and cost if someone else was granted the patent further down the line. Either the 1Ds MkIV will be delayed, or worse, produced cameras will have to be recalled to be modified if not a cheap enough licensing deal could be established with the copyright owner.

    Canon is a conservative company and we are just leaving a severe economic downturn. Low priority projects like this one would probably not have received enough budget to have any products completed to near shipping status.
    Although I agree with Eric Reagan, Nikon & Canon (and the rest) are soo late to the game looking back to what PocketWizard have been doing for years and years.