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'Bug's eye' camera inspired by nature

A new camera was modeled on the compound eyes of insects. As such, it has a curved rather than flat lens. This enables a 160-degree field of view, making it well-suited for security cameras or drones. 

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Image of a digital camera with a hemispherical, compound design inspired by eyes found in the insect world.

University of Illinois and Beckman Institute

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Bug eyes, bird eyes and human eyes all have one thing in common: They're round. Almost every ocular organ found in nature has some kind of curvature.

So why do all man-made cameras use flat lenses and inflexible silicon chips?

Taking nature as their guide, several scientists have developed a "bug's eye" digital camera directly modeled after those of insects, such as flies, ants and beetles.

The compound eyes found in most insects consist of long, cylindrical units called omatidia: a cornea connected to a photosensitive organ and surrounded with a dark pigment to prevent light from one lens leaking into neighboring lenses. These omatidia are clustered together in a dome shape with the lenses facing outward, and collectively, they form the compound eye of the insect.

"If you look at the design of the compound eye in the insect world and look at our device, there are really strict and explicit analogies between all the component parts," said John Rogers, a professor at the University of Illinois, explaining the process he and his fellow researchers used to creating their "bio-inspired" camera.

The finished camera's "omatidia" consist of a tiny microlens connected to a photoreceptive computer chip by an elastomer, or molecular compound with elastic properties.

Between 200 and 500 of these artificial omatidia are embedded in a sheet of curved and flexible rubber. "That corresponds to the number [of omatidia] you find in an ant or a common bark beetle," Rogers explained. "That's the low end of what you find in insects. The high end would be something like a praying mantis or a dragonfly, where the range [of omatidia per compound eye] is 10,000 to 20,000."

Producing a bug's eye camera of that resolution is possible, Rogers says, but it would require a finesse that the team simply couldn't achieve from their academic lab. Creating cameras with resolutions of "dragonfly and beyond," as Rogers puts it, would require the type of specialization available at state of the art manufacturing facilities.

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