You know those scientific displays of labelled insects stuck on pins? Well, they decay over time, and sometimes even get eaten by an insect known as the museum beetle. That's why German scientists have created a more permanent alternative – an automated 3D scanner designed specifically for imaging insects.

Known as the DISC3D (Darmstadt Insect Scanner 3D), the open-source prototype device was developed over a period of four years by a joint team from Technische Universität Darmstadt and Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences.

Users start by mounting a pinned insect of any size in the middle of the scanner, where it's illuminated from all sides by two hemispherical light sources. An onboard digital camera then starts continuously taking photos, as it's moved back and forth on a motorized sled – at the same time, stepper motors rotate the insect around two axes, allowing the camera to image it from all sides.

This results in a total of about 25,000 photos, captured from 400 separate spatial directions. These are combined to form one high-definition 3D model of the insect, to which a true-color photographic surface texture is applied. People viewing that model on a computer can subsequently rotate it, zoom in on its details, measure parts of it, or even create an enlarged physical copy of it using a 3D printer.

Additionally, because the models created by the scanner are digital, they can be accessed online by scientists (or even just by the scientifically-curious) around the world.

The prototype is currently in routine use by the two universities, and its design is being replicated by other institutions. Such copying is encouraged by the designers, who will supply interested parties with construction plans on request.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal ZooKeys.

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