You didn't think 2020 couldn't get any weirder, did you? If the idea of tiny steerable cameras mounted on top of insects sounds like something out of a dystopian nightmare, that's because, well, it probably is.
A team of researchers from the University of Washington (UW) has developed light-weight low-res cameras that can be mounted, and controlled, atop flying beetles.
Though the scientists acknowledge the "privacy risk" of their own work, they also claim it can benefit humanity by allowing us to explore and monitor novel environments like never before.
First-person insect view
Shyam Gollakota, a UW associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, and colleagues at the University of Washington have developed a tiny GoPro-like camera that can be attached to beetles in order to live-stream footage from the beetle's surroundings while it's flying.
“We have created a low-power, low-weight, wireless camera system that can capture a first-person view of what’s happening from an actual live insect or create vision for small robots,” Gollakota, who's also senior author of the study, said in a press release.
“Vision is so important for communication and for navigation, but it’s extremely challenging to do it at such a small scale. As a result, prior to our work, wireless vision has not been possible for small robots or insects,” he continued.
The camera uses Bluetooth to stream footage to a smartphone at a rate between one and five frames per second and a resolution of 160 by 120 pixels. While this is undeniably very low resolution, it's worth remembering that these scientists have, for all intents and purposes attached a tiny GoPro to a flying insect.
A fleet of camera-mounted beetles
With the current system — detailed in the team's paper in Science Robotics — the team has no control over where the beetles choose to fly to — thankfully, many will argue. However, using tens or even hundreds of beetles with mounted cameras would enable a comprehensive monitoring or mapping system of a large area.
“As [the beetles] spread out you can collect enough information that you don’t need to control the insects,” Gollakota explained.
The idea of an army of beetles with mounted cameras is quite terrifying we have to say. It is, however, a sentiment that is fully understood by the researchers.
While the team is excited about the potential for extremely light-weight and low-power cameras, they acknowledge that the development of their technology does come with a substantial privacy risk.
“As researchers, we strongly believe that it’s really important to put things in the public domain so people are aware of the risks and so people can start coming up with solutions to address them,” Gollakota said.
A power-saving advantage over robots and drones
The camera, which sits on a mechanical arm that can be remotely controlled to pan the camera left and right, is powered by a lithium-polymer battery. When streaming continuously, it can run for over an hour, explains collaborator Vikram Iyer, from the University of Washington.
The device, which weighs just over half a gram and is removable, also includes an accelerometer. This allows the camera can be programmed to only capture footage when the beetle is moving. This system allows the battery to last for up to six hours.
Why not just build a tiny flying robot that can be controlled, you might ask? Capturing footage while beetles are flying gives a power-saving advantage when compared with the mobility of robots, Gollakota explains. “That mobility really drains the battery a lot,” he says.
“By combining these two different things – living animals with sensors – you’re basically getting the best of both worlds,” says Gollakota.
The researchers attached their device to two different beetle species, the death-feigning beetle (Asbolus laevis) and the Pinacate beetle (Eleodes nigrina). Both of these lived for more than a year after the experiment ended, the researchers say.
Ultimately, the uses for this technology could range from biological observation to exploring novel environments, the researchers explain, and future versions could be solar-powered and battery-free. Let's just hope they don't use it to start bugging our homes.