From body parts to supercars, the family of 3D printed products just keeps expanding. But in a study published last week in Science Advances, scientists think small: German researchers 3D printed different lenses—each smaller than the width of a human hair—onto a chip. Such micro-cameras could be perfect for tiny drones and other pint-sized robots.
“Our system is the only one in the world [where] you can put different optic systems on one imaging sensor that is very small,” says study author Alois Herkommer, an applied physicist at the University of Stuttgart in Stuttgart, Germany. “The advantage of doing this by 3D printing is that each of these lenses can be different,” says Herkommer. And thus, “you can do many different things at a time.”
The camera’s multi-lens design gives it vision similar to that of a flying predator, leading researchers to dub it an “eagle eye” camera. The lens in the center allows you to resolve high levels of detail far out in the distance, while other lenses pick up a wide range of peripheral vision at a lower degree of resolution.
The result is an image that blurs out around the edges like a glamour shot on Instagram. There are benefits to that design. For example, PBS Newshour reports, the computer processing power will be reduced. And the quick and detailed detection of objects in the center of the field will do the trick for things like surveillance drones, or medical instruments checking what’s inside our body. The cluster of cameras would allow robots to maintain some level of awareness of their surroundings while devoting most of their computing power to the task at hand—just as an eagle has to stay aware of threats all around her while using most of her brain power to focus sharply on her target. For these gadgets, the small size of the camera is another big bonus.
The camera is still in its prototyping stage and far from commercial production. It takes hours for a 3-D printer to “write” on the micro scale with high accuracy, says Herkommer.
“But people are working to make this faster and doing it in parallel. So we think this will be a trend for the industry as well,” says Herkommer.
The team’s vision is to make the camera even smaller. “Right now it’s a commercial imaging sensor, so it has electronics and cables around,” says Herkommer. “But in principle, the technology is ready to really make a sensor plus optics plus battery very very small, like one by one by one millimeter. And this you can really use to put an imaging system in drones or for security or for robot arms.”