A team of researchers at the University of Washington have created something they’re calling “a GoPro for beetles.” In reality, it’s a tiny, smartphone controlled camera backpack that can ride aboard an insect, giving us a beetle’s-eye view of the world.
The camera, which is detailed in a paper that was just published in the journal Science Robotics, is described as 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.”
It weighs just 250 milligrams—about one-tenth the weight of a playing card—sits on a mechanical arm that can pivot 60 degrees to capture “panoramic” images, and streams video to a smartphone at 1 to 5 frames per second (would we call that video?).
You can learn more and see the camera in action in the video and photos below:
The breakthrough here isn’t about the size of the camera, but how much power is consumed. As explained in an article on the University of Washington website, tiny cameras like the ones in smartphones won’t work because they need too much power—the battery ends up being bigger than the camera itself, making the setup too big and heavy (or downright cruel) for an insect to carry.
To overcome this limitation, the researchers used an ultra-low-power system that overcomes its lack of resolution by being attached to a mechanical arm. That way, you can scan your field of vision instead of capturing it all at once, saving power in the process.
“We can track a moving object without having to spend the energy to move a whole robot,” explained co-lead author and doctoral student Vikram Iyer. “These images are also at a higher resolution than if we used a wide-angle lens, which would create an image with the same number of pixels divided up over a much larger area.”
In other words, they’re stitching together panoramas rather than wasting energy on a higher-resolution sensor with a wider field of view.
To test the camera, the researchers attached the system to the backs of two different types of beetles who are both known to carry far heavier loads. Then they added an accelerometer to the system so that it only captures images when the beetle is actually moving. Finally, they put the system to the test, and found they could record for up to six on one charge depending on how much the beetle was moving.
As you can see from the video above, the results aren’t the most gripping footage you’ve ever seen, but researchers are excited all the same.
“This is the first time that we’ve had a first-person view from the back of a beetle while it’s walking around. There are so many questions you could explore,” said 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.”
Image credits: All photos by Mark Stone/University of Washington.