New micro-cameras emulate insects' compound eyes

From IEEE Spectrum:

Just a few weeks ago, IEEE Spectrum wrote about an artificial compound insect eye that was developed by a group of researchers based in the United States. Not to be outdone, a group from EPFL in Switzerland has announced their own artificial compound insect eye, and we got a hands-on a few weeks ago in Lausanne.

Generally, we like to make camera systems that work like our eyeballs do. And that's fine. But in a lot of ways, human eyeballs are terrible. The most successful class of animals ever, the arthropods, have gotten along just fine with compound eyes for a very long time, and the most sophisticated eyes of any animal are of the compound variety (belonging to our friend the mantis shrimp).

So obviously, compound eyes have something going for them, which is why researchers in general (and roboticists specifically) are so keen on developing their own versions. The eye to come out of EPFL this week is unique because it offers a huge insect-like field of view, very fast performance under all sorts of lighting conditions, and most notably, it's mechanically flexible: at just 1 mm thin, you can bend it into different shapes.

We got a look at this thing a couple weeks ago while we were visiting Dario Floreano's lab at EPFL, and it's totally cool:

It's amazing how the use of this flexible substrate enables sensors that are not just bio-inspired, but in fact end up nearly identical to the types of compound eyes that you find on everything from flies to trilobites. Here's a figure from the paper showing a comparison:

Image C shows the eye from an extinct species of trilobite, while Image D shows the eye from a fruit fly. Both the real and artificial eyes offer a horizontal field of view of 180 degrees, and they consist of a similar number of pixels. However, the artificial eye is significantly faster, operating at up to 300 hertz, while a fruit fly only updates at 100 hertz. Take that, nature!

It's important to note that these aren't the sort of cameras that you'd want to use to take pictures. What they're best at is sensing movement, or to be more specific, sensing changes in the intensity of light generated by motion. It doesn't sound like much (and it doesn't look like much, either), but it's how bugs navigate and avoid obstacles, and as anyone who's ever tried to swat a fly can attest to, it works rather well. It also works indoors, outdoors, in bright sun, and in shade (or even moonlight), and has no trouble adapting to abrupt transitions between any of these states, which is something that conventional cameras are lousy at.

Here's a video of the system in action, which gives a good idea of what an optic flow sensor "sees" and why it works so well for insects:

Clearly, there are many advantages that these kinds of sensors can bring to robotics, especially in the context of lightweight aerial platforms. And there's no reason to stop at just one of 'em, either: put a couple CurvACE sensors together and all of a sudden you have a 360 degree panoramic sensor system the size of a couple of quarters:

Freaky. And awesome.

Going forward, we expect to see this tech integrated into robots, and there's also the potential for it to show up in lots of other applications. If it can be made inexpensively enough, we could end up with something like "imaging tape" that could be integrated into smart clothing, to provide a self-contained way of detecting distances to objects. Why? Because why not, that's why. But seriously, flexible sensors like these have the potential to enable all sorts of new applications that have been impossible until now, and we're excited to see what happens.

"Miniature Curved Artificial Compound Eyes," by Dario Floreano, Ramon Pericet-Camara, Stéphane Viollet, Franck Ruffier, Andreas Brückner, Robert Leitel, Wolfgang Buss, Mohsine Menouni, Fabien Expert, Raphaël Juston, Michal Karol Dobrzynski, Geraud L’Eplattenier, Fabian Recktenwald, Hanspeter A. Mallot, and Nicolas Franceschini, was published today inProceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Special thanks to Dario Floreano and Ramon Pericet-Camara for showing us these eyes at EPFL.

CurvACE ]

Views: 3333

Comment by Jesse on May 20, 2013 at 11:30pm

Great new technology! I'll keep my eye on it.

Comment by Joshua Johnson on May 20, 2013 at 11:33pm

This would be perfect for a couple Micro Helis I have!!! I hope the technology becomes affordable someday soon.

Comment by Bill Bonney on May 21, 2013 at 12:23am
Looks like somebody's attempting to make Geordi Le Forge's visor
Comment by Brad on May 21, 2013 at 12:40am

We've got eyes already. We need wings damn it!

Comment by Sandro Benigno on May 21, 2013 at 2:35am

Absolutely amazing!!!

Comment by Gary McCray on May 21, 2013 at 12:01pm

Great article Chris,

One of our biggest problems in dealing with machines is anthropomorphism.

Thinking that our machines ought to act, sense and "think" in the same way we do.

Machine vision is one of the most important attributes where this fallacy has been pursued.

Nice to see a bit further out of the box.

Comment by Alejandro Martin Pirola on May 22, 2013 at 2:01pm

Nice! looking forward for massive and cheap production.
Bill, hahaha true.

Comment by HeliStorm on May 23, 2013 at 6:04am
Brad...what we need is the power system. Think of a bee compared to a micro-quad in terms of energy efficency.
Comment by W. Joe Taylor on May 24, 2013 at 3:52pm

Watch the video at  The resolution has much to be desired and the bot it is attached to for the optic flow based avoidance bumps into the wall head on.  But I remember when digital "camera" sensors had a resolution of 1024 pixels (0.1 megapixel) were $5000 (and not so long ago really), so no telling how fast this will evolve and become practical.  Still, I wonder if the omnidirectional lenses (like on top of roomba) with simple camera and using or few cogs in the 64 cog parellela processor would not be more cost effective for the near term.     

Comment by Nico Rautenbach on June 3, 2013 at 3:01pm

The Darpa Boys can use this on there experimental autonomous cars.....



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