Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a tiny camera that can be attached to an insect. (Image Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington)


I always wanted to see this. Seeing the world from an insect’s point-of-view can be an interesting experience. Researchers from the University of Washington have developed a wireless steerable camera that’s so tiny it can be mounted on top of a flying beetle. This technology can be used by scientists to explore and monitor unique environments like never before. The team presented their findings in Science Robotics on July 15th, 2020.


The low-resolution black-and-white camera, which transmits video to a smartphone at 1 to 5 frames per second, sits on a mechanical arm that can be pivoted 60 degrees. This enables the operator to capture a higher resolution panorama or track a moving object while using very little energy.  Applying a high voltage causes the material to bend and moves the camera to the desired position. Unless more power is applied, the arm stays in that position for one minute before relaxing to its original position. 


However, the streaming capabilities are limited. A remote operator will have to be close to the camera since it can only be controlled via Bluetooth from a smartphone, but the connection maxes out at 120 meters. The battery life is great, too. With non-stop streaming, the camera can operate for up to two hours. To enhance that, the team added a small accelerometer, allowing the camera to only capture and broadcast images while the beetle moves. This increases the camera’s battery life to over six hours.


“We added a small accelerometer to our system to be able to detect when the beetle moves. Then it only captures images during that time,” said Vikram Iyer, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering. “If the camera is just continuously streaming without this accelerometer, we could record one to two hours before the battery died. With the accelerometer, we could record for six hours or more, depending on the beetle’s activity level.”


One of the researchers attached the camera system to a Pinacate beetle. These cameras could be used to observe an insect’s environment. (Image Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington)


This is the first camera that’s capable of viewing the world from a bug’s point-of-view. It only weighs 250 milligrams, so it doesn’t affect an insect’s mobility. To demonstrate the system’s versatility, the team mounted it on a death-feigning beetle and a Pinacate beetle.


“We made sure the beetles could still move properly when they were carrying our system,” said Ali Najafi, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering. “They were able to navigate freely across gravel, up a slope and even climb trees.”


The team also used the tiny camera to design a small autonomous robot with wireless vision. This insect-sized robot moves via vibrations and uses a minimal amount of power to operate. However, the images became distorted since the vibrations cause the camera to shake. To overcome this issue, the team made it so that the robot stopped briefly, took a photo and resumed its journey. Using this technique allowed the system to move at speeds of 2 to 3 centimeters per second. This system outperforms other tiny robots that use vibrations to move, and it has a 90-minute battery life.


Future versions of this camera could require less power to operate and be solar-powered, eliminating the need for batteries. It could also allow entomologists to observe insects and how they move in their environment, respond to threats or other stimuli, and provide a closer look at their social structures.


The video below shows it in action. The shots from the beetle's backpack camera - seeing the crass and trucks in a parking lot - I found very cute.



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