An array of microlenses emulates the workings of an arthropod eye.
Courtesy the University of Illinois An array of microlenses emulates the workings of an arthropod eye.

Scientists have long been fascinated with the workings of insect eyes—specifically the multifaceted optics of arthropods such as flies, bees, or moths. A research effort led by University of Illinois engineering professor John Rogers has brought about the development of the world's first digital camera that mimics the functionality of an insect eye.

Like nature's model, the lens is a hemispherical shape that permits 180 degree angle views. Clad in a large number of small optics, the aggregate lens provides the camera with a wide-angle, sharply focused view, with a high degree of motion sensitivity.

"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," said Rogers in a university press release. "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."

The synthetic eye, which integrates the tiny lens arrays with photodetectors and electronics, comprises flexible, rubbery materials that allow for stretching and deformation. Rogers and his team anticipate the technology being used in solar cells, advanced surgery tools, and health monitors.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.