Tiny Camera Backpack Turns Beetles Into FPV Inspection Robots

UW researchers developed a tiny camera that can ride aboard an insect, requiring very little energy to perform inspections and surveillance.

There is little doubt that energy will be the most important resource of the future. Today, 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. As those finite resources are depleted and our energy needs simultaneously increase, renewable energy will become indispensable. It is also imperative that we reduce the energy consumption of the devices and machines we build — even robots. The easiest way to accomplish that is by reducing their size. This tiny backpack equipped with a camera turns beetles into living first-person view robots that require very little energy to perform inspections and surveillance.

This backpack was built by engineers from the University of Washington. They started by building a miniature robot that is roughly the size of a typical dice. That robot had small camera attached and moved using vibrations. Unfortunately, those vibrations caused distortions in the images coming from the camera. It was also only able to operate for about 90 minutes before the battery died, despite the team’s best efforts to reduce energy consumption. The unconventional solution was to use beetles to carry around their camera — a tactic that extended the battery life by more than four times.

They used two types of beetlefor their research: the death-feigning beetle and the Pinacate beetle, both of which are found in the deserts of the Southwestern United States and Mexico. No need to worry beetle-lovers, these test subjects were well cared for and lived for at least a year after the research was concluded. Beetles like these are capable of carrying more than half a gram, which is more than enough to haul around the 250 milligram camera backpack. For reference, that’s about the same as nine grains of rice.

That’s an incredibly small amount of weight, but the backpack still manages to contain a camera capable of transmitting relatively high-resolution black-and-white images at a rate of one to five frames per second. Those images can be transmitted up to 120 meters via Bluetooth. The camera is attached to an arm that can be used to aim the camera when necessary. The backpack contains an accelerometer that makes it possible to increase battery life by only capturing images when the beetle is actually moving. Those factors combine to result in a tiny FPV robot that can operate for more than six hours on a single battery charge.

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