Robotics

Tiny, wireless camera streams beetle's-eye view of the world

Tiny, wireless camera streams ...
A beetle dons an electronic backpack containing a tiny camera
A beetle dons an electronic backpack containing a tiny camera
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A beetle dons an electronic backpack containing a tiny camera
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A beetle dons an electronic backpack containing a tiny camera
Co-lead author Vikram Iyer attaches the electronics to the beetle
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Co-lead author Vikram Iyer attaches the electronics to the beetle
The tiny camera can give sight to an insect-sized robot
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The tiny camera can give sight to an insect-sized robot
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Researchers at the University of Washington have created a new camera system that’s so small and light it can perch on the back of a beetle. From there, it can be wirelessly controlled to focus on different things, and stream video and photos back to a phone connected via Bluetooth.

In pure numbers, the camera specs might not sound particularly impressive. Images are shot in black and white, resolution is 160 x 120 pixels, and video is streamed at between one and five frames per second.

But the team had to make some trade-offs in order to shrink this camera system down. As such, it runs on very little power, and the whole kit weighs just 248 milligrams – light enough for a beetle or a tiny robot to lug around comfortably.

“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,” says Shyam Gollakota, senior author of the study. “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.”

In fact, insects often have to make their own trade-offs for efficiency at their size. Thanks to their simple brains, wide-angle high-definition visual processing just isn’t possible in most bugs. To compensate, some flies have a small region of their compound eyes that sees in high-res, and they turn their heads to point this at things of particular interest.

Co-lead author Vikram Iyer attaches the electronics to the beetle
Co-lead author Vikram Iyer attaches the electronics to the beetle

So the team adopted this technique, attaching the tiny camera to a mechanical arm that can swing 60 degrees. The arm itself also runs on little power – it’s made of a material that bends to different angles by way of a little jolt of electricity. Each time, the arm will stay in that position for about a minute before moving back to its original forward-facing position. This system can allow the camera to snap panoramas or track moving objects without spending the energy to move the whole robot or insect.

The researchers tested the new camera setup on both live beetles and insect-sized robots of their own design. In the case of the live bug, the team was able to capture essentially a first-person view from the beetle as it went about its day. It could be left recording non-stop, or connected to an accelerometer that only turned it on when the beetle was moving. In the former, the battery only lasted one to two hours, while the second scenario managed as much as six hours.

The robot, meanwhile, used vibrations to move between 2 and 3 cm (0.8 and 1.2 in) per second. It would stop to snap photos, and had a battery life of about 90 minutes.

The team says that the tiny camera technology could eventually be used to better study insects, make them into “cyborgs” or design tiny robots that could crawl into small places.

The study was published in the journal Science Robotics. The team describes the work in the video below.

Wireless Steerable Vision for Live Insects and Insect-scale Robots

Source: University of Washington

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1 comment
paul314
Thank mobile phones and the ridiculously tiny cameras and transmitters they demand. (That 248 milligrams could probably be shaved some more if the group had a budget for more serious production techniques, like more flex pcbs or their own batteries. Good on them for using that battery as structure.)