Often sitting at the bottom of the food chain, insects need to survive in a hostile environment, always watching out for predators. Their compound eyes are a useful tool. Consisting of thousands of smaller eyes (ommatidia), each pointing in a slightly different direction, compound eyes provide a large viewing angle and 5x better resolution than human vision. Scientists in Switzerland, Germany, and France have set their sights on figuring out how the insect eye works.
The researchers have designed and built the first fully functional curved artificial compound eye. Resembling the eye of the Drosophila fruit fly in its characteristics and functionality, the eye is made up of 630 ommatidia, arranged in 42 columns of 15 sensors each. Each artificial ommatidia consists of three materially and functionally different layers: an optical layer composed of an array of highly transparent polymer micro lenses molded on a glass carrier, a silicon-based photodetector layer, and a flexible electromechanical interconnection layer, which transfers the output signals from the individual ommatidia to the processing units.
The invention could be used in numerous applications where panoramic motion detection is important. The technology could help guide robots to avoid collisions. In home care and ambient assisted living settings, the artificial eyes could be attached to walls to watch for emergencies. Embedded in clothes, the eyes could warn people with impaired vision of looming obstacles.
The project was funded with more than €2 million through the European Commission’s FET open programme. “Nature provides us with many extremely sophisticated solutions when it comes to solving problems,” says European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes in a press release. “The research programmes financed by the EC give us the possibility to get inspired, understand, copy and re-create on an industrial scale some of the great things Mother Nature has brought us, so we can improve the lives of our fellow citizens.”
Coming from five collaborating institutions in Switzerland, Germany and France, the research team published its results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS).
A video of the eye can be seen here: