Scientists develop 3-D scanner for insects

May 22, 2018, Technische Universitat Darmstadt
Scanned insects. Credit: Michael Heethoff

A scanner developed jointly at TU Darmstadt and Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences enables automated digital archiving of preserved insects—in high-resolution and in 3-D. The scientists have published this new and unique development in the journal "ZooKeys."

A tremendous decrease of insects has been observed in the last decades: Some native protected areas have lost 75 percent of their insect biomass. The documentation and understanding of the local and global diversity of insects is thus a particularly urgent concern. For this purpose, scientists from Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences and TU Darmstadt have jointly developed a novel that digitises preserved insects in high resolution and to scale. The scanner should make a valuable contribution to the digital documentation of biodiversity. Because even preserved insects in collections are in danger: They are threatened to be gradually lost due to natural decay and pests such as the museum beetle. Over one million of different species are archived in natural history museums – a substantial number. Digitisation makes it possible for them to be not just preserved for the future, but also to be accessed online worldwide.

The group "Ecological Networks' at TU Darmstadt investigates the influence of land use and climate change on species communities and morphological characteristics of insects and arachnids. Although there are already numerous photographic documentations of insect collections, the reduction of the three-dimensional animals to two-dimensional images is extremely unsatisfactory. "Single images make it impossible to see all the important characters, and the spatial relationships of certain characters cannot be displayed," explains ecologist Michael Heethoff. A 3-D insect scanner was therefore needed. Here, Bernhard Ströbel from the Department of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences came into play with his many years of experience in the field of optical 3-D measuring.

3-D insect scanner at work. Credit: Gregor Schuster

The joint development of the "DISC3D" (Darmstadt Insect Scanner 3-D) device took four years. The prototype is now in routine use and optimised for largely automatic data acquisition. For the scan, a pinned insect is mounted in the centre of two hemispheres, which indirectly illuminate the specimen on all sides. A motorised sled moves a camera back and forth as it continuously takes pictures. The insect is rotated by stepper motors at regular intervals around two axes to allow imaging from all directions. This results in about 25,000 digital single images, combined from 400 different spatial directions. Three-dimensional models are then generated from these 400 images, to which the photographic surface (texture) of the insects is digitally applied. The results are true color, scaled 3-D models of the animals that can be viewed, rotated, zoomed, measured and curated in databases in museums. "The scanner can image insects of most sizes in its current configuration, from small flies of two millimetres to animals the size of a cockchafer," says Ströbel. The models can be enlarged and printed with a 3-D printer, which is also of interest for instance for museum education.

Some museums and research institutions have already expressed interest in the scanner and have started to build replicas. Although the device currently uses also commercial software, it is in principle designed as an open project that can be realised inexpensively by interested parties themselves. The developers are hoping for numerous imitators, including private individuals, so that the goal of a large-scale digitisation of insect collections at the museums could be achieved. Interested parties are provided with the construction plan of the device on request, and participation in the further development is anticipated in return.

The joint initiative of the two universities is an example of how interdisciplinary cooperation opens up new fields of application for digitisation. Darmstadt, the winner of the "Digital City" competition in 2017, the Technical University with its central profile area "Internet and Digitalization" and the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences with its study area "Optical Technology and Image Processing" provide ideal conditions for the ecologists' aims.

Explore further: Insects could help us find new yeasts for big business

More information: Bernhard Ströbel et al. An automated device for the digitization and 3D modelling of insects, combining extended-depth-of-field and all-side multi-view imaging, ZooKeys (2018). DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.759.24584

Related Stories

Insects could help us find new yeasts for big business

March 21, 2018

Yeasts are tiny fungi - but they play key roles in producing everything from beer and cheese to industrial chemicals and biofuels. And now scientists are proposing a new approach that could help these industries find new ...

Scanning robot helps put insect collection online

November 24, 2014

A robot capable of scanning a tray of insect specimens in a few minutes will help make the virtual images and tagging information available to the public online, according to South Dakota State University entomologist Paul ...

'Off-the-shelf' equipment used to digitize insects in 3-D

April 23, 2014

Scientists have developed a cost-effective, off-the-shelf system to obtain natural-color 3D models of insects, according to results published April 23, 2014, in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Chuong Nguyen from CSIRO ...

Images of 300 million-year-old insects revealed

September 26, 2012

(—Writing in the journal PLoS One, the scientists have used a high resolution form of CT scanning to reconstruct two 305-million year old juvenile insects. Without the pioneering approach to imaging, these tiny ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

NASA instruments image fireball over Bering Sea

March 22, 2019

On Dec. 18, 2018, a large "fireball—the term used for exceptionally bright meteors that are visible over a wide area—exploded about 16 miles (26 kilometers) above the Bering Sea. The explosion unleashed an estimated 173 ...


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.