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Bug’s view inspires new digital camera’s unique imaging capabilities

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has created the first digital cameras with designs that mimic those of ocular systems found in dragonflies, bees, praying mantises and other insects, according to the university.


This class of technology offers exceptionally wide-angle fields of view, with low aberrations, high acuity to motion and nearly infinite depth of field, according to the researchers.

The cameras exploit large arrays of tiny focusing lenses and miniaturized detectors in hemispherical layouts, just like eyes found in arthropods. The devices combine soft, rubbery optics with high performance silicon electronics and detectors, using ideas first established in research on skin and brain monitoring systems by John A. Rogers, a Swanlund chair professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his collaborators.

rogers bug

The new digital cameras exploit large arrays of tiny focusing lenses and miniaturized detectors in hemispherical layouts, just like eyes found in arthropods, according to researchers.

“Full 180 degree fields of view with zero aberrations can only be accomplished with image sensors that adopt hemispherical layouts—much different than the planar CCD chips found in commercial cameras,” Rogers explained.

“When implemented with large arrays of microlenses, each of which couples to an individual photodiode, this type of hemispherical design provides unmatched field of view and other powerful capabilities in imaging. Nature has developed and refined these concepts over the course of billions of years of evolution,” he said.

“A critical feature of our fly’s eye cameras is that they incorporate integrated microlenses, photodetectors, and electronics on hemispherically curved surfaces,” said Jianliang Xiao, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of the study. “To realize this outcome, we used soft, rubbery optics bonded to detectors/electronics in mesh layouts that can be stretched and deformed, reversibly and without damage.”

The researchers described their breakthrough camera in an article, “Digital Cameras With Designs Inspired By the Arthropod Eye,” published in the May 2, 2013 issue of Nature.

Eyes in arthropods use compound designs, in which arrays of smaller eyes act together to provide image perception. Each small eye, known as an ommatidium, consists of a corneal lens, a crystalline cone and a light sensitive organ at the base. The entire system is configured to provide exceptional properties in imaging, many of which lie beyond the reach of existing man-made cameras, according to the researchers.

The fabrication starts with electronics, detectors and lens arrays formed on flat surfaces using advanced techniques adapted from the semiconductor industry. The lens sheet—made from a polymer material similar to a contact lens—and the electronics/detectors are then aligned and bonded together. Pneumatic pressure deforms the resulting system into the desired hemispherical shape, in a process much like blowing up a balloon, but with precision engineering control. 

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