New Camera Designs Offer a Bug's Eye View of the World

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Two labs have built tiny cameras that work like insect eyes, complete with 180-degree fields of view.

From an engineering standpoint, the camera is a work of beauty because of how closely it emulates the mechanics of the human eye: Light passes through a lens with an iris or aperture that adjusts the luminosity of an image reflected onto a retina, or film, or a sensor.

But what about an insect eye? Each is made up of thousands of individual photosites. How would a camera emulate that impressive feat of nature?

Earlier this month, scientists came closer to realizing this possibility. As is often the case, the news came in pairs. Two separate organizations on both sides of the Atlantic ocean unveiled prototypes for insect-sized, compound-eye cameras, which offer undistorted 180-degree fields of view—much like a fly’s.

Bee comparison

Both flies and artificial compound eyes have deplorable image resolution.

Engineers faced some hefty challenges to make a camera like this work. It's quite a feat to properly align massive numbers of tiny photoreceptors on a curved surface (not to mention the equally massive numbers of tiny lenses, too). Each receptor works like a standalone pixel; resolution is terrible, but the design allows for a nearly infinite depth-of-field and a 180-degree field of view. Those last two features are pretty promising, to say the least.

One of the two fly-eye-mimicking devices unveiled in May came from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The camera stacks three flexible layers—lenses, receptors, and a circuit board—onto a curved surface about the size of a nickel. This prototype, called Curvace, is also programmable—so someone could theoretically build a 360-degree sensor by putting two devices back-to-back.

A similar camera built by researchers at the University of Illinois more closely resembles an insect’s eye. It consists of 180 tiny ommatidia, each with its own lens, scattered across a dome-shaped sensor. This device was partly funded by DARPA, so don’t be surprised if these cameras show up in aerial drones, or robot soldiers with eyes like a praying mantis (try to sleep on that thought).

curvace illustration
(A) The CurvACE prototype. (B) Illustration of the panoramic FOV.

Researchers do have plenty of ideas for how the artificial eyes could be used outside of military applications. Curvace’s motion detection capabilities may allow for “collision-free navigation of terrestrial and aerospace vehicles.” It could also be used for experimental testing of insect-vision theories. A more obvious application is in medical technology—an endoscope with a 180-degree field of view could revolutionize the field. Other ideas include security sensors, texture recognition for artificial skin, and the development of "smart clothing” that changes shape as a person moves to improve comfort.

Whatever happens, we'll soon start to realize what it's like to have a bug's eye view of the world.

Dragonfly comparison

Dome Lenses
The fly's eye camera developed by University of Illinois researchers.

[Photos: Curvace.org, University of Illinois]