Engineers eye-up insect biology as inspiration for curved camera


Engineers have developed a curved camera designed to mimic insects’ compound eyes. The hemispherical design gives a wide field-of-view with no aberrations and effectively infinite depth-of-field, with the hope it could be used in applications such as endoscopy or as visual sensors on unmanned aircraft. The current design uses 180 light-sensitive elements, each behind its own lens, but researchers hope to build one with 20,000 elements, giving a similar resolution to that seen by dragonflies.

Because each sensor element looks through a single lens (presumably focused at the hyperfocal distance), the camera sees everything in focus in each direction. The differing perspective of each element makes the camera incredibly sensitive to motion.

The team, from The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign’s Materials Science and Engineering department, worked with scientists and engineers across four countries, to develop the camera. The big development, reported in a letter to the journal Nature (doi:10.1038/nature12083), is the ability to construct the array of photosensitive elements on a curved surface. This was achieved by arranging the combined lenses and elements on a flexible material with deformable connections between each element. The backing material was then inflated to give a predetermined degree of curvature.

As well as developing higher resolution versions, the team also says it intends to try inflating or deflating the camera to allow changeable fields of view.

The approach is approximately the inverse of the gigapixel camera we reported on last year that involved a concave array of cameras pointing at a central lens.


Paul Guba

Love to see some images off it. Coming to a drone near you.

Cy Cheze

Insects may not have focal vision or perceive bokeh, but the perception of location and motion must be extremely acute.

Could the same approach be applied to laser guidance or sub-optical frequencies, such as infra-red or radar? Might result in one heckuva agile mechanical dragonfly to use for surveillance or as a drone. But the data or imaging would not resemble anything people are accustomed to “see.” The “pictures” might differentiate objects and distances, but not resolve text or facial features. Just my ant-brained guess, mind you.

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