In the movie “Ant-Man,” the title character can shrink in size and travel by soaring on the back of an insect. Now researchers at the University of Washington have developed a tiny wireless steerable camera that can also ride aboard an insect, allowing a real-life view from the back of an insect.
The camera, which streams video to a smartphone at one to five frames per second, sits on a mechanical arm that can pivot 60 degrees. This allows a viewer to capture a high-resolution, panoramic shot or track a moving object while expending a minimal amount of energy. To demonstrate the versatility of this system, which weighs about 250 milligrams — about one-tenth the weight of a playing card — the team mounted it on top of live beetles and insect-sized robots.
The results were published July 15 in Science Robotics.
The camera can also give researchers an insect-eye view into insect behaviour and travel.
“We have created a low-power, low-weight, wireless camera system that can capture a first-person view of what’s happening from an actual live insect or create vision for small robots,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, a UW associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “Vision is so important for communication and for navigation, but it’s extremely challenging to do it at such a small scale. As a result, prior to our work, wireless vision has not been possible for small robots or insects.”
Typical small cameras, such as those used in smartphones, use a lot of power to capture wide-angle, high-resolution photos, and that doesn’t work at the insect scale. While the cameras themselves are lightweight, the batteries they need to support them make the overall system too big and heavy for insects — or insect-sized robots — to lug around. So the team took a lesson from biology.
“Similar to cameras, vision in animals requires a lot of power,” said co-author Sawyer Fuller, a UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “It’s less of a big deal in larger creatures like humans, but flies are using 10 to 20 per cent of their resting energy just to power their brains, most of which is devoted to visual processing.
To help cut the cost, some flies have a small, high-resolution region of their compound eyes. They turn their heads to steer where they want to see with extra clarity, such as for chasing prey or a mate. This saves power over having high resolution over their entire visual field.”
To mimic an animal’s vision, the researchers used a tiny, ultra-low-power black-and-white camera that can sweep across a field of view with the help of a mechanical arm. The arm moves when the team applies a high voltage, which makes the material bend and move the camera to the desired position. Unless the team applies more power, the arm stays at that angle for about a minute before relaxing back to its original position. This is similar to how people can keep their head turned in one direction for only a short period of time before returning to a more neutral position.
The camera and arm are controlled via Bluetooth from a smartphone from a distance up to 120 meters away.
The researchers attached their removable system to the backs of two different types of beetles — a death-feigning beetle and a Pinacate beetle. Similar beetles have been known to be able to carry loads heavier than half a gram, the researchers said.