Imagine seeing the world through an insect's eyes. A team of researchers have created a digital camera that replicates the curved compound structure of an arthropod's eye. In a paper published on Nature, the scientists from the U.S., South Korea, Singapore and China describe the challenges and limitations of building the composite eye.
Bugs can attribute their wide field of view and motion sensitivity to light-sensing structures called ommatidia. With hundreds or thousands of them, each facing in a slightly different direction on an eye, insects can see objects clearly regardless of whether they're nearby or far away, in the center of the visual field or in the periphery.
The main challenge scientists faced was replicating the curvature of insects' eyes with electronics, which are typically flat and rigid. They found a unique workaround to create their lens, which measures a centimeter in diameter. An array of microlenses, which are connected to posts that mimic ommatidia, is laid on top of a flexible array of silicon photodetectors. Then "we blow it up like a balloon," said John Rogers, a materials scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
For now, there are a few limitations to this prototype camera, which could prove useful in advanced surveillance systems, such as drones or endoscopes. It produces only black-and-white images, though the researchers note a color version can be built following the same design. Furthermore, with 180 artificial ommatidia, the resolution is on par with a "low-end insect eye," such as fire ants or bark beetles, which don't see very well. Rogers said he would like to improve the resolution to that of a dragonfly eye, which has 20,000 ommatidia.
(Image credits: John A. Rogers/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
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