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Super small cameras will create insect spies for farmers

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Ever wondered what it’s like to literally be a fly on the wall?

A new, super small camera designed to be worn on the back of bugs like a backpack could finally be your chance to experience the real Bug’s Life.

And these tiny computerized critters could play a vital role in keeping your breakfast safe.

What’s the news — In published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics, a team of engineers from the University of Washington describes how they designed a very tiny, light-weight camera that could be attached to an insect to wirelessly stream back POV video to a nearby smartphone.

, the study’s first author and Ph.D. student in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Washington, tells Inverse that shrinking down this camera was a question optimizing of weight, size and power output.

“Vision is very important for us, as well as any other animal, and it’s something you see commonly on larger robotic systems like autonomous cars.

But when you try to shrink it down to the size of a penny it becomes very challenging,” says Iyer.

“You have to consider a number of different factors, including the size, the weight, and the power consumption.

These are all different things we had to optimize.”

Shrinking computer vision down to this size could have major implications for medical robotics as well as behavioral studies on insects, Iyer tells Inverse.

At only 250 milligrams, the entire camera system weighs less than one-tenth of a playing card.Science Robotics

How does it work — Cameras in our smartphones have become incredibly small and high-def, but for Iyer and the team, this approach simply required too much power and weight to be feasible for their tiny insects.

Instead, the study’s senior author, , tells Inverse that a major innovation in this research was to mimic a key feature of insect vision: how they move their heads.

“If I’m looking at a moving bird, I’m not moving my whole body to track the moving bird,” says Gollakota.

“I’m just looking at a particular bird.

It turns out that this is actually a very important optimization method because it’s extremely power efficient.”

At 250 milligrams, the whole system weighed less than one-tenth of a playing card.

These beetles were equipped with tiny camera backpacks and sent gallivanting around a local parking lot.

Science Robotics

In addition to designing a camera to mount on the back of an insect, like the darkling beetle, the team also designed a tiny robot to carry the camera as well.

Mimicking the insect’s active vision to swivel the camera’s “eye” 60 degrees meant that the robot could save power by not moving its entire body.

What were the results — To test how an insect would react to the extra weight of this tiny camera, the researchers suited up a selection of insects with camera backpacks and set them free in a Washington parking lot.

During their galavanting around the parking lot, the team observed the insects climbing rough terrain, like rocks, without any difficulty, suggesting that the weight and balance of the camera did not affect their daily activities.

As for streaming, the team was able to use a smartphone to send signals to the camera to steer its “eye” and received black and white footage from the beetle’s POV at 1 to 5 frames per second.

For comparison, movies and TV are typically shown at 24 frames per second.

One small step for a bug, is one big innovation for a super, small camera.

What’s next — The authors write in the study that the innovations they’ve made in designing this light-weight, steerable camera could be used in a number of different ways, from endoscopy robots to farmers equipping bugs with tiny cameras to keep an eye on their crops.

In the future, Iyer tells Inverse that the team plans to expand the control they have over these cameras, including collecting other behavioral information from the insects such as neural activity.

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