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Miniature robotic camera backpack shows how beetles see the world

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 packs 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 impressive 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 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 chasing prey or a mate. This saves power over having high resolution over their entire visual field.”

Similarly, the backpack camera uses an ultra-low-power black-and-white camera 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, provides “a wide-angle view of what’s happening without consuming a huge amount of power,” said co-lead author Vikram Iyer. Also, an accelerometer ensures it only records when the beetles move, allowing it to 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 a 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 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 many questions you could explore, such as how the beetle responds to different stimuli that it sees in the environment?” Iyer said. “But also, insects can traverse rugged environments, which is 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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