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Image credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Miniature robotic camera backpack shows how beetles see the world

It has a robotic arm that simulates how insects turn their heads.
Steve Dent, @stevetdent
July 15, 2020
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Caption: Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a tiny camera that can ride aboard an insect. Here a Pinacate beetle explores the UW campus with the camera on its back.
Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington
Mark Stone/University of Washington

After creating tiny sensor backpacks for bees, researchers from the University of Washington have built a more advanced model for beetles. Dubbed “a GoPro for beetles,” the robotic backpacks carry a tiny steerable camera that can stream video at 1 to 5 fps and pivot up to 60 degrees. On top of getting an interesting bugs-eye view of the world, the devices could power future biological studies and allow us to “explore novel environments,” according to the team.

The backpack was designed to be carried by two species: A “death-feigning” beetle and Pinacate beetle. Both of those have been observed carrying up to half a gram at a time. As such, the camera rig they created weighs just a quarter gram.

To hit that goal, the team took a lesson from the insect world they’re trying to explore. “Flies are using 10 to 20 percent of their resting energy just to power their brains, most of which is devoted to visual processing,” said the study’s co-author Sawyer Fuller. “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.”

In a similar way, the backpack camera uses an ultra-low-power black-and-white camera that pans up to 60 degrees via a mechanical arm. The arm bends when voltage is applied, and can stay in the new position for about a minute before returning to its original spot. That in turn gives provides “a wide-angle view of what’s happening without consuming a huge amount of power,” said co-lead author Vikram Iyer. In addition, an accelerometer ensure it only records when the beetles move, letting it run for up to six hours on a charge.

The researchers also used the tech to develop what they called “the world’s smallest” terrestrial, power-autonomous robot with wireless vision It uses vibrations to move and consumes about the same amount of electricity as a low-power Bluetooth radio. To avoid jolting the camera, they designed the robot to stop before capturing an image.

The insects weren’t actually harmed by the research and went on to live for “at least a full year” after it concluded, the team said. Now, they hope to use the backpack to learn more about them.

“There are so many questions you could explore, such as how does the beetle respond to different stimuli that it sees in the environment?" Iyer said. "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."

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