Scientists tied a small camera to a beetle to test how small video technology could get

Researchers at the University of Washington in the US developed techniques to test the capability of miniature cameras. Their device weighs about 250 milligrams – one-tenth the weight of a playing card – and streams video to a smartphone from one to five frames per second.

Sitting on a mechanical arm that can spindle up to 60 degrees, the camera allows a viewer to capture a high-resolution, panoramic shot or track a moving object. As with recording everything an insect sees, it can be used as “eyes” for small robots.

But its development, which showed how recording devices could shrink until potentially invisible, would raise concerns about privacy.

Senior author Shyam Golakota said in a statement, “We have created a low-power, low-weight, wireless camera system that can capture the first view from an actual live insect or cause vision for a small robot. ”

“Vision is very important for communication and for navigation, but doing it on such a small scale is extremely challenging. As a result, prior to our work, wireless vision has not been possible for small robots or insects.”

The team’s research was published in the journal Science Robotics on Wednesday.

They used a small, ultra-low-power black-and-white camera that, with the help of a mechanical hand, could sweep over an area of ​​view, so that an insect could see its environment. When the team applies a high voltage, the arm moves, which twists the material and moves the camera to the desired position.

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Co-lead author Vikram Iyer said, “One advantage of being able to move the camera is that you can have a wide-angle view of what can happen without consuming huge amounts of power.”

The camera and arm were controlled via Bluetooth from the smartphone, which could be 120 meters (394 ft) away. It currently requires batteries, but researchers are considering making a version that uses other types of power.

The team said they hoped their equipment could be used to detect novel or remote environments and serve biological purposes.

But the researchers also raised the possibility of clandestine surveillance, which would be difficult for subjects to detect, and they acknowledged privacy concerns.

“As researchers we strongly believe that it is really important to keep things in the public domain so that people are aware of the risks and so people can start coming up with solutions to address them,” Golcotta said .

“There are many questions you can explore, such as how does the beetle respond to the various stimuli it sees in the environment?” Iyer added. “But at the same time, insects can cross rocky environments, which is really challenging for robots at this scale. So this system can help us see or collect samples from hard-to-navigate locations.”

Earlier efforts to produce innovative cameras also tried to mimic insect sightings.

In 2013, researchers created a digital camera that mimicked the pitted eyes of insects, specifically fire ants and bark beetles.