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May 5, 2013

New camera inspired by insect eyes

An insect's compound eye is an engineering marvel: high resolution, wide field of view, and incredible sensitivity to motion, all in a compact package. Now, a new digital camera provides the best-ever imitation of a bug's vision, using new optical materials and techniques. This technology could someday give patrolling surveillance drones the same exquisite vision as a dragonfly on the hunt.

Human eyes and conventional cameras work about the same way. Light enters a single curved lens and resolves into an image on a retina or photosensitive chip. But a bug's eyes are covered with many individual lenses, each connected to light-detecting cells and an optic nerve. These units, called ommatidia, are essentially self-contained minieyes. Ants have a few hundred. Praying mantises have tens of thousands. The semicircular eyes sometimes take up most of an insect's head.

While biologists continue to study compound eyes, materials scientists such as John Rogers try to mimic elements of their design. Many previous attempts to make compound eyes focused light from multiple lenses onto a flat chip, such as the charge-coupled device chips in digital cameras. While flat silicon chips have worked well for digital photography, in biology, "you never see that design," Rogers says. He thinks that a curved system of detectors better imitates biological eyes. In 2008, his lab created a camera designed like a mammal eye, with a concave electronic "retina" at the back. The curved surface enabled a wider field of view without the distortion typical of a wide-angle camera lens. Rogers then turned his attention to the compound eye.

Over the last 3 years, Rogers and students in his lab at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, have developed an array of 180 ommatidia (about the same number as in the eye of a fire ant), each of which contains a lens, tiny silicon photodetectors, and circuitry to read the image. But nanoscale manufacturing on a flexible, curved surface is tricky, says electrical engineer R. Fabian Pease of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved in the research. "It's not even easy on a nice, flat, rigid silicon wafer."

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  • Why do wolves howl?

    Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon. Images of wolves with their heads upturned, singing at the night sky, are as unquestioned as a goldfish's three-second memory or a dog's color-blindness (both also myths).

    April 18, 2014

  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

  • Biggest student loan profits come from grad students

    This week, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal government would earn roughly $127 billion from student lending during the next 10 years.

    April 18, 2014

  • Screen shot 2014-04-18 at 4.44.15 PM.png Paint, doodle and sketch: 3 apps for art lovers

    In the absence of a palette of watercolors and a sketchpad, these three apps can fill in as your art supplies of choice.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • touch.jpg Divorce is on the rise, and it's the baby boomers' fault

    A new paper from demographers at the University of Minnesota found that the age-standardized divorce rate has actually risen by an astonishing 40 percent since 1980.

    March 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • barbour021614.jpg No shows escaped death by Craigslist killer

    The young woman who says she was driven by satanic spirts to commit a cross-country murder spree over the last six years says authorities are not taking her claims seriously and that she tried to lured other central Pennslyvania men into her death snare with online companionship ads but they didn't show up.

    March 29, 2014 1 Photo 2 Stories

  • firefighters.jpg VIDEO: Firefighters sing song from 'Frozen' to calm girl stuck in elevator

    Firefighters in Reading, Mass., sing the Disney power ballad known by children everywhere -- "Let It Go" -- to calm a 4-year-old stuck in an elevator.

    March 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • dog-sunglasses.jpg Do animals have a sense of humor?

    Right now, in a high-security research lab at Northwestern University's Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics, scientists are tickling rats. Their goal? To develop a pharmaceutical-grade happiness pill. But their efforts might also produce some of the best evidence yet that humor isn't something experienced exclusively by human beings.

    March 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • taylor.armerding.jpg Put teens to work by laying off minimum wage rhetoric

    Idle teen workers may be a national problem, but frugal private employers aren't the reason for it. Minimum wage hikes - like the one championed by President Obama - squeeze these marginal jobs out of the economy.
     

    March 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 2.40.34 PM.png VIDEO: Would-be carjacker stymied by stick shift

    A man ordered a mother and her son out of their SUV at gunpoint in an Omaha neighborhood, but was forced to flee on foot, police said, because he didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.

    March 27, 2014 1 Photo

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