Contrary to what certain cartoons may have us believe, insects’ compound eyes don’t produce a grid of tiny identical images. Instead, each of their many optical facets supply one unique section of a single composite image – sort of like the individual pixels that make up one digital image. Now, a team of scientists has replicated that eye structure, to create an ultra-wide-angle camera.

The researchers, led by Prof. John A. Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, made the camera using a hemispherical interconnected array of 180 tiny focusing lenses. Each lens is paired with its own individual photodiode, allowing it to act as a little self-contained camera – just like each of the individual tiny “mini-eyes” within an insect’s compound eyes has its own lens, cone, and light-sensitive organ.

The various images captured by the device's individual mini lenses/cameras are fed to a processor, that combines them together into one cohesive 180-degree image. The picture reportedly has no visual aberrations, and an almost infinite depth of field.

While the electronics used are made of silicon, the optical components bonded to them are made from a rubbery polymer similar to that used for contact lenses. The wires connecting the lenses to one another are coiled like springs. This combination of rubbery lenses and springy interconnecting wires makes the array flexible enough to take on its curved, half-globe insect-eye-like shape, plus it can be stretched and deformed reversibly and without damage.

Although the technology is still in development, it is hoped that such cameras could someday find use in applications such as surveillance, endoscopy or even in micro air vehicles. A paper on the research was published today in the journal Nature.

Scientists at Germany’s Cognitive Interaction Technology Center of Excellence at Bielefeld University have also created a 280-degree artificial bee’s eye, although it utilizes a single lens.

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