Scientists have built a digital camera inspired by the compound eyes of insects like bees and flies. The camera’s hemispherical array of 180 microlenses gives it a 160 degree field of view and the ability to focus simultaneously on objects at different depths.
Human eyes, and virtually all cameras, use a single lens to focus light onto a light-sensitive tissue or material. That arrangement can produce high-resolution images, but compound eyes offer different advantages. They can provide a more panoramic view, for example, and remarkable depth perception.
The new artificial version, created by by John Rogers and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and described in Nature, could potentially be developed for use in security cameras or surgical endoscopes.
“The resolution is roughly equivalent to that of a fire ant or a bark beetle,” Rogers wrote in an email to Wired. “With manufacturing systems more like those in industry, and less like the academic, research setups that we are currently using, we feel that it is possible to get to the level of a dragonfly or beyond.”
In an accompanying editorial, Alexander Borst and Johannes Plett of the Max-Planck-Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried, Germany suggest the cameras could also provide visual capabilities for tiny aircraft called micro aerial vehicles. “One major application is disaster relief,” they wrote. “Picture the following: a palm-sized MAV uses an artificial faceted eye to navigate autonomously through a collapsed building while other sensors on board scan the environment for smoke, radioactivity or even people trapped beneath rubble and debris.”
Presumably the engineers who build these future rescue MAVs will come up with a way to make sure the people they’re trying to help don’t mistake them for flies and swat them down.
Representative imaging results for four different line art images captured with a hemispherical, apposition compound eye camera and rendered on a hemispherical surface that matches the shape of the device.