Imagine seeing the world through the eyes of an insect — traversing rocky, uneven terrain and swooping into spaces that are hard to reach. Engineers at Washington University announced Wednesday that this could soon be a possibility, through a wireless camera small enough to be mounted on a live beetle ‘s back. In other words, an “Insect GoPro.”
Funded by a Microsoft Fellowship, as well as a National Science Foundation grant of $980,000, the engineers claim to have developed the first fully wireless mechanically steerable vision system in a form factor tiny enough to ride on an insect and stream video to a smartphone at 1 to 5 frames per second. The whole system weighs about 250 mg — about a tenth of a play card’s weight, and has enough battery power to record images for about six hours.
The camera sits on a rotating arm that can rotate 60 degrees, allowing it to pan from left to right, taking high-resolution, panoramic shots or monitor a moving target. The camera and arm are operated from a distance up to about 395 ft (120 m) away from a smartphone via Bluetooth, only a little longer than a football pitch.
Wireless vision for small robots or insects has not been possible until now, said Shyam Gollakota, a UW associate professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, who led the research.
The researchers decided to mount the removable device to the back of two separate types of beetles — a death-feigning beetle and a Pinacate beetle — as similar beetles were known to bear loads greater than half a gram, they said.
“We made sure that the beetles could still move properly when they were carrying our system,” said co-lead author Ali Najafi, an electrical and computer engineering doctoral student at UW.
Vikram Iyer, a UW doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering and co-lead of the study, added that they gradually added weight to make sure it didn’t affect their motion.they were still able to easily traverse obstacles like rocks that were larger than them. We were also able to easily detach our camera system after finishing our experiments and saw that the beetles lived for over a year.”
This is, not the first time that the UW researchers have introduced a method for flying insects. They announced in December 2018 that they had developed the first flying wireless platform with a power source that is strong as well as light enough to attach to a bumblebee. It included sensors, Bluetooth, and position trackers. It was referred to by the engineers as Living IoT. The sensors required only a tiny rechargeable battery, which could last for seven hours.
The whole package of sensors weighed only 102 mg or about seven grains of uncooked rice. The engineers were able to track the location of the bees, and the sensors could monitor temperature, humidity and light intensity.
Iyer said that they never received any backlash from environmentalists on bee experiments, but got some interest from beekeepers who preferred the idea of developing systems using live insects rather than trying to engineer artificial pollinators.
Before that, the UW engineers unveiled RoboFly, a Robo-insect slightly more substantial than a toothpick powered by an invisible laser beam pointing at a photovoltaic cell above the robot, which converted the laser light into sufficient electricity to operate its wings. But the most it could do with its tiny battery was take off and land.
New applications for wireless vision to a small scale
The drastic reduction in the size, weight and power of conventional vision systems expands the use of cameras to new applications which were previously not possible, Gollakota said.
“Vision is essential to communication and navigation. … Having the ability to capture and stream visual data as the insect travels around can be extremely beneficial for the agricultural and farming industries, as well as for industrial IoT, and for exploring new environments.
The team is releasing its code for anybody to use for this project.
Since this goes way beyond the capabilities of small robots, it opens up the possibility of using insects with sensors to track smart farming conditions, locate insect colonies for pest control and explore things like pipes or other confined spaces, “Iyer said.
Gollakota also claims that precision farming firms that design and deploy sensors for farms will be interested in this technology “because we provide the ability to capture information below the canopy while allowing for mobility.”
A lesson in the power of biology
Typical small cameras, like those used in smartphones, use much power to capture high-resolution, wide-angle photos, and that doesn’t work on an insect scale. While the cameras themselves are lightweight, the batteries they need to support the system too large and heavy for insects — or robots of insect size — to lug around. So, the team was taking a biology lesson.
“As with cameras, animal vision requires much power,” said co-author Sawyer Fuller, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UW.it’s less of a big deal, but flies use 10 per cent to 20 per cent of their resting resources only to fuel their brains, most of which is dedicated to visual processing. To help cut costs, some flies have their compound-eyes in a small, high-resolution area.
They turn their heads towards steering where they want to see with extra clarity, for example, to chase prey or a mate. Saves control over their entire field of Vision from having high resolution.
The researchers used a tiny, ultra-low-power black-and-white camera to imitate the Vision of an insect, which can sweep through a field of view with the help of a mechanical arm. The arm moves when a high voltage is applied by the team, thereby making the material bend and shifting the camera to the desired location. The arm stays at that angle for about a minute, before relaxing back to its original position, unless the team applies power.
Similar to how people, before returning to a more neutral position, will keep their head turned in one direction for a brief time only.