Housefly a model for new wide-angle lens

Angled honeycomb design of artificial compound eye similar to housefly's. Wide usage range possible, researcher says.

Fish-eye lenses may soon get bug-eyed.

Bioengineers at the University of California at Berkeley have created artificial compound eyes, modeled after those of insects, that could one day be used to broaden the field of vision for cameras and sensors, even beyond fish-eye lenses, according to the researchers.

The research could lead to wide-area cameras for ultrathin cell phones in the next few years, according to Luke Lee, professor of bioengineering at UC Berkeley.

The tests are part of a broader scientific trend in which researchers are looking to nature to create efficiencies in technology and the industrial world. For example, scientists have re-created the highly sensory hairs of crickets, a development that could lead to next-generation implants for the hearing impaired.

Lee, the lens team's principal investigator, created the optical system from an artificial compound polymer that emulates the honeycomb structure and size of a housefly's eye.

Rather than using conventional 2D microfabrication technology (technology used to fabricate minicomponents), Lee used microlens arrays, or thousands of tiny lenses packed side by side in a 3D dome about the size of a pinhead. Made of a polymer resin, the system includes light-conducting channels that are given form and direction when hit by beams of light.

The artificial ommatidia--thousands of sensory eye units comprising the compound eye--are each oriented at slightly different angles and mimic the way an insect's eye focuses and conducts light.

"People have said that it would be totally impossible to create (the lenses) with an angle, but now that we've done it, we're ready to integrate imaging or chemical sensing into the eyes," Lee said.

In the ommatidia of an insect's eye, each is connected to a photoreceptor cell that transmits a light signal to the bug's optic nerve. For the artificial compound eye, Lee intends to connect the ommatidia to CCD photodiodes--the light-capturing units used in digital cameras and camcorders.

Eventually, Lee's team believes, the technology could be used for surveillance, high-speed motion detection, environmental sensing and medical procedures that require cameras.

The research is reported in this week's issue of the journal Science.

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