An insect eye for drones

August 12, 2015, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne
An insect eye for drones
Credit: Aymen Fantar أيمن فنطر

Is it possible to catch a fly? Small insects seem to possess a sixth sense that allows them to dodge any threats. Yet there is no magic trick, but only a compound eye that is an organ of vision made of thousands of ommatidia. These visual receptors allow insects to perceive precisely their environment, including the direction and speed of movements. Inspired by this natural model, the EPFL team, headed by Dario Floreano, has developed an artificial compound eye, described in a recent publication of Interface, a journal of the Royal Society.

The of flies have many interesting properties. Each ommatidium is slightly offset from its neighbors, allowing the brain to collect and compare the information produced by the set of visual sensors. Insects can thus accurately perceive their environment and detect movement, even in dark places. All without spending a lot of energy.

A featherweight eye

These advantages have led several research teams to develop an artificial compound eye. Specifically, the sensor consists of three hexagonal photodetectors arranged in a triangular shape, covered with a single lens. The artificial eye is capable of operating the focus and to adapt to the ambient light. These three detectors, slightly offset, then send information to the microprocessor. Based on this flow, it will establish a summary map of the surrounding environment. "One must not imagine that this is a high quality image, explain Ramón Pericet Cámara, the project coordinator, it is only a three pixels picture." This figure may seem far too low, but it is sufficient for the artificial eye to detect surrounding objects and their motion vector. Better yet, the device also notices stationary objects through their relative velocity.

Despite measuring only 1925 * 475 * 860 microns (1 micron = 0.001 mm) and weighing only 2 mg, the electronic eye is capable of recording 300 frames per second, three times more than that of the fly. Moreover, it does not just capture the optical flow: it processes it directly and converts it from analog into digital.

Prevent collisions and help the blind

Such an eye has ideal attributes for equipping an . "One of the project goals was to develop a sensor for very small drones", says Ramón Pericet Cámara. "To be relatively autonomous, these flying robots must be able to detect and avoid their surroundings. The biggest challenge was to miniaturize all the components", he added. Like its animal counterpart, the electronic eye is very energy efficient. It may also be attached on all sorts of structures, whether rigid, soft, planar or curved.

All these advantages open the way to multiple applications. Beyond its integration into drones built for rescue or surveillance tasks, the could be used in many other sectors. For instance, EPFL teams are currently developing a connected cap to help the blind: visual sensors detect obstacles and guide the wearer via a system of vibrations. It is also possible to imagine automotive applications, either to optimize the operation of unmanned cars or prevent collisions.

Ramón Pericet Cámara notes that the success of this project wouldn't have been possible without the participation of several partner universities. "To arrive at such a result, we had to bring together the best European experts available. Such a project is unachievable in a single institution."

Explore further: Researchers build curved insect-sized artificial compound eye (w/ video)

More information: "An artificial elementary eye with optic flow detection and compositional properties." DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2015.0414

For more information on the project: curvace.org

Related Stories

Light that adapts to your needs through the eye of a camera

March 9, 2015

EPFL researchers have developed a camera that sees like the human eye, providing clues about the sensation of visual comfort. The instrument could optimize natural and artificial lighting to constantly adapt to the needs ...

The Compound Eye lossless digital imaging system

August 6, 2015

The imaging process is often affected by the field of view, wavefront aberration, ambient light, as well as the resolution of the optical imaging system and detector. In such cases, the image information of the object cannot ...

Acute artificial compound eyes

May 28, 2008

Insects are a source of inspiration for technological development work. For example, researchers around the world are working on ultra-thin imaging systems based on the insect eye. The principle of hyperacuity has now been ...

Surprising similarity in fly and mouse motion vision

July 29, 2015

At first glance, the eyes of mammals and those of insects do not seem to have much in common. However, a comparison of the neural circuits for detecting motion shows surprising parallels between flies and mice. Scientists ...

Recommended for you

Privacy becomes a selling point at tech show

January 7, 2019

Apple is not among the exhibitors at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show, but that didn't prevent the iPhone maker from sending a message to attendees on a large billboard.

China's Huawei unveils chip for global big data market

January 7, 2019

Huawei Technologies Ltd. showed off a new processor chip for data centers and cloud computing Monday, expanding into new and growing markets despite Western warnings the company might be a security risk.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.