Go to Beetle-Cam: Scientists Create Robotic Backpack Camera for Bugs

(CN) — You’ve no doubt heard of a bird’s eye view. A new camera that rides on the back of a beetle may soon let you see the world through a bug’s eye view.

Researchers have developed a tiny wireless camera system described in a study released Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics which shoots photos and video in black and white from an insect’s perspective. The system can be used to study other insects in the field or to survey especially tight spaces where a typical borescope couldn’t fit. Miniature cameras like these are useful in a variety of fields from agriculture to medicine and engineering.

“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, an associate professor in the University of Washington Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, in a statement accompanying 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.”

The device connects to a smartphone app via Bluetooth and can be controlled from a distance up to 400 feet — longer than a football field. Researchers attached the system to two different types of beetles, a death-feigning beetle and a Pinacate beetle, as certain species can carry heavier loads than others, some up to twice the weight of the current device.

The system can stream between one and five frames per second. For reference, a typical feature film is shot at 24 frames per second, while a smartphone camera normally shoots between 30 and 120 frames per second. A higher framerate makes for smoother, more cinematic video; however, it also drastically increases energy consumption. The battery powering most phones weighs a little over one ounce. By contrast, this entire device weighs less than 1/100th of an ounce.

“While camera chips we have in things like our phones are small, they still have pretty large batteries and processors. If we look to nature, insects face a similar challenge as their visual systems consume a large portion of their mass and energy. The large ‘bug eyes’ in an insect like a hoverfly take up 13% of their mass, and in a blowfly the retina takes 8% of its metabolism. Since vision is expensive, nature has evolved insects to have small regions of their eyes that are more sensitive, and instead move their heads,” said co-lead author Vikram Iyer, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering, in an email.

The authors sought to mimic this behavior in their device. A piezo actuator, which acts like a small motor, is attached to an arm that allows the camera to pan 60 degrees and capture a panorama. When attached to an insect-sized robot this reduces its energy consumption by allowing for only the arm to pivot rather than moving the entire robot’s body. A rotating camera also provides a higher resolution image than a wide-angel lens.

The robot built by the researchers is the world’s smallest terrestrial, power-autonomous robot with wireless vision. It can operate for about 90 minutes under constant use, moving itself using patterns of vibrations to shuffle along a surface. It stops momentarily to capture an image, preventing those vibrations from blurring the result.

The system also contains an accelerometer, a device that tracks movement, and records only when the robot is not stationary for an extended period. This keeps the camera from continuously recording the same view and increases battery life to over six hours, versus just one or two hours without it.

Clearly there are some privacy implications. Many people are already wary of drones flying overhead and fear a day is coming when there is a camera on every street corner. The idea of a mosquito-cam buzzing through their window is the stuff of nightmares for more than one security expert.

Acknowledging this caveat, Gollakota added: “We strongly believe that it’s really important to put things in the public domain so people are aware of the risks and so people can start coming up with solutions to address them.”

No beetles were harmed in the making of this study, and all test subjects lived over a year following its conclusion.

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