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Researchers Create A Tiny Camera To Be Carried By Beetles


Tiny video cameras have given us a whole new view of the world. You can be strapped to a cliff diver plunging into the ocean soar, with a hang glider or barrel down a powdery ski slope, all from the comfort of your couch.


But if all of that is a little too high-octane for you, how about a video camera strapped to the back of a beetle?

VIKRAM IYER: They're pretty easy to work with, actually. You can carefully pick them up in a pair of tweezers and then apply a little drop of adhesive to its back and then carefully stick on the camera system.

CHANG: Vikram Iyer of the University of Washington - he says they didn't glue on just any old camera. That would be far too heavy, of course.

MCCAMMON: Instead, his team built a wireless camera weighing just a quarter of a gram that can stream live video to a computer more than a football field's length away. And they took a cue from the eyes of flies, moths and locusts, which have sharp vision only in a small corner of their retina.

IYER: Nature has evolved these insects to have small regions of their eyes that are more sensitive. And instead, they move their heads to get a better view of the world.

CHANG: Iyer's colleague Ali Najafi says it was that adaptation that inspired their design.

ALI NAJAFI: You figure out how to build something that can pan around with a very small amount of energy.

CHANG: They created a micro robotic arm which allows their tiny camera to scan its surroundings using very little energy, saving precious battery power for the processor and Wi-Fi communication.

MCCAMMON: Next, they brought in their test pilots, the beetles. Iyer says the little backpack cameras didn't seem to faze them.

IYER: They were able to climb over obstacles that were taller than them. There was even one that climbed up a tree.

MCCAMMON: The details are in the journal Science Robotics.

CHANG: Tiny cameras like this could give scientists a bug's-eye view of how insects navigate their world, but they could also bring the gift of vision to tiny robots. Imagine a cockroach made of electronic components.

IYER: Prior to this work, robots of this size didn't have any capability to see the world.

MCCAMMON: Outfitted with camera eyes, a bug-sized robot like that could avoid obstacles as it explores new terrain and snap photos and video along the way. Najafi says these tiny robots could fly through fields, looking at crops, or find broken parts in factories.

NAJAFI: In manufacturing sites, you would want to have a robot that can go around the parts that are hard to reach and take pictures of them. And you can figure out where was the malfunctioning part, basically.

CHANG: But one outstanding research question remains - whether people will feel any less squeamish about roving bands of robotic insects streaming live on video than they do about the real thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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