Tiny cameras give scientists a beetle-eyed view of the world
The miniaturization of technology is opening doors for all sorts of innovations. One of them includes mounting tiny cameras to animals. Creatures from fruit flies to pigeons to bees have worn cameras, giving scientists a new perspective of the world around us.
The next animal to wear a tiny camera backpack is a beetle. Scientists have created a low-power, robotic camera system that gives them a beetle-eye view of the world.
Researchers from the University of Washington specifically designed their beetle camera backpack for two species-the “death-feigning” beetle and the Pinacate beetle. Both species have been observed carrying loads of up to half a gram. Accordingly, the rig weighs just a quarter of a gram.
Dubbed “a GoPro for beetles,” the robotic backpack features a steerable camera that is capable of streaming video at one to five frames per second (fps). It is also able to pivot up to 60 degrees.
Researchers drew inspiration from nature when designing their system. The study’s co-author Sawyer Fuller says, “Flies are using 10 to 20 percent of their resting energy just to power their brains, most of which is devoted to visual processing.”
He adds, “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… This saves power over having high resolution over their entire visual field.”
In the same sense, the team’s beetle backpack features an ultra-low-power black and white camera. When voltage is applied to a mechanical arm, it pivots 60 degrees to get a wide-angle shot of what the beetle sees. Importantly, it accomplishes this without consuming much power, according to co-lead author Vikram Iyer.
Meanwhile, an accelerometer built into the device ensures that the cameras only record footage when the beetle is moving. This helps the system run for up to six hours on a single charge.
Learning About the World
So, what is the point of strapping a GoPro on a beetle? Researchers hope that their camera backpack will help uncover secrets of how the insects live.
“There are so many questions you could explore, such as how does the beetle respond to different stimuli that it sees in the environment?” says Iyer. “But also, insects can traverse rocky environments, which is really challenging for robots to do at this scale. So this system can also help us out by letting us see or collect samples from hard-to-navigate spaces.”
Ultimately, this could lead to projects where scientists and first responders use the beetle cameras to scout dangerous or small locations. It’s easy to see how the tech could be applicable from a search-and-rescue standpoint.
If beetles were able to crawl into a pile of rubble while wearing the cameras, rescuers could theoretically get a live look at what’s inside.
While advanced applications like this are still a long way off, these are noteworthy first steps.
For those concerned about the safety of the beetles, they’re just fine. The team noted that their camera backpack didn’t hurt the insects and that most of them went on to live “at least a full year” after the experiment concluded.
Originally published at https://www.theburnin.com on July 16, 2020.