If you’ve ever wondered—or not—how insects view the world around them, you’re in luck. Researchers from the University of Washington recently developed a tiny wireless steerable camera that allows you to experience riding aboard an insect.
Put simply, you get to ride your own Antonio Banderas just like Ant-Man, but virtually.
In their report, which they published this month in Science Robotics, the researchers looked at how insects use vision to navigate the world around them and designed a camera that’s similar in size in performance.
They ended up building a camera that can stream video to a smartphone at one to five frames per second, which sat on a mechanical arm that can pivot 60 degrees. This allows the viewer to capture a high-resolution, panoramic shot of what the insects are viewing—because who wouldn’t—or track a moving object. The whole setup is also ridiculously light, weighing a total of 250 milligrams. For the study, they mounted the system on top of live darkling beetles and insect-sized robots.
“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,” explained Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor at UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and the senior author of 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 study opens up the potential for developing more compact systems for “seeing” in machines. While small cameras that can take wide-angle, high-resolution photos exist, these need large batteries to work.
The same also holds true for biology. Our eyes are pretty powerful, but it’s hooked up to a large power source, the brain, that makes it all possible. Insects, on the other hand, don’t have that advantage, which makes seeing all the more challenging.
“Flies are using 10 to 20% of their resting energy just to power their brains, most of which is devoted to visual processing,” added co-author Sawyer Fuller, a UW assistant professor in mechanical engineering. “To help cut the cost, some flies have a small, high-resolution region of their compound eyes. They turn their heads to steer where they want to see with extra clarity, such as for chasing prey or a mate. This saves power over having high resolution over their entire visual field.”
Both the camera and crane are controlled via Bluetooth from a smartphone and can work up to 120 meters away. In the study, the removable vision system was mounted to the backs of a death-feigning beetle and a Pinacate beetle, which are known to carry loads heavier than half a gram. The researchers noted that the insects were able to move properly, even being able to climb trees.
They also developed a small insect-sized robot—the world’s smallest power-autonomous robot with wireless vision—for comparison. While it was able to perform similarly to the insect-mounted camera, it was way less energy-efficient.
The team is already looking at the system’s applications, which range from biology to even exploring novel environments. According to lead author Vikram Iyer, this is an important milestone in insect-scale robotics.
“This is the first time that we’ve had a first-person view from the back of a beetle while it’s walking around,” Iyer added. “There are so many questions you could explore, such as how does the beetle respond to different stimuli that it sees in the environment?”