It weighs 250 milligrams, can stream footage for six hours, and doesn’t harm the insect wearing it.
Studying insect behavior is difficult, because they are so small and agile. But it’s about to get a little easier, thanks to a very tiny camera capable of wirelessly live streaming footage from the back of a bug for hours.
As IEEE Spectrum reports, a team of roboticists working at the University of Washington in Seattle, have developed a camera system that’s small and light enough to be carried on the back of an insect. Research lead Shyam Gollakota refers to it as the Beetlecam, and summarizes it as a “low-power steerable wireless camera.”
The total weight of the camera system is just 250 milligrams. That includes a low-power image sensor, Bluetooth 5.0 chip, lens, antenna, and accelerometer. The most weight in terms of camera components comes from adding a steerable head to the setup, but allows for 60 degrees of pivot. As for power, it’s provided by a 0.5 gram 10mAh battery. The end result is a camera capable of streaming 5fps 160-by-120 pixel monochrome video at a range of up to 120 meters for a total of six hours. The long battery life is helped greatly by the inclusion of the accelerometer, which limits streaming to only start when movement is detected. Control of the camera is via a nearby smartphone.
According to co-author Sawyer Fuller, “Similar to cameras, vision in animals requires a lot of power … It’s less of a big deal in larger creatures like humans, but flies are using 10 to 20% of their resting energy just to power their brains, most of which is devoted to visual processing. 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, such as for chasing prey or a mate. This saves power over having high resolution over their entire visual field.”
It’s possible to mount the camera system on any insect known to be able to carry such loads, and bug-lovers will be glad to hear the camera can be removed without harming the insect. As the video above shows, the same camera can also be used with tiny robots, which not only benefit from the vision, but the incredibly low power draw on what is already a very constricted device in terms of space and weight carrying ability.
It’s hoped the camera tech paves the way for new insights when exploring biology and novel environments, but the research team is also aware it poses some new privacy risks. The research will continue in a bid to reduce power draw even further and remove the need for a battery altogether. Replacing it with a solar panel may also take the weight down below what a bumblebee can carry (100mg to 200mg).
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.