small plans: nanotechnology for the building industry

Friday, April 28, 2006

Tiny biomimetic camera creates artificial eye

Here’s an invention that brings two major issues in nanotechnology to the fore.

Using the eyes of houseflies as models, a team of bioengineers at University of California, Berkeley, has created a series of artificial compound eyes, according to EurekAlert.

These eyes could eventually be used as cameras or sensory detectors to capture visual or chemical information from a wider field of vision than previously possible, even with the best fish-eye lens, said Luke P. Lee, the team's principal investigator. Potential applications include surveillance, high-speed motion detection and environmental sensing.

What he and his team came up with is a low-cost, easy-to-replicate method of creating pinhead-sized polymer resin domes spiked with thousands of light-guiding channels, each topped with its own lens. Not only are these units packed together in the same hexagonal, honeycomb pattern as in an insect's compound eye, but each is also remarkably similar in size, design, shape and function to an ommatidium, the individual sensory unit of a compound eye.

That’s the first issue this discovery raises: biomimicry. It seems that almost every day a new breakthrough occurs in nanotechnology based on a biological design. It’s great to see scientists looking at nature, wondering how it works, and applying that sense of wonder in the lab to create new things.

On the other hand, this particular advance raises the thorny issue of privacy, another frequent concern in nanotechnology. When we can fit a thousand cameras on the head of a pin, we’ll never know when we’re being watched.

We’ve already seen cellphones banned from many locker rooms because so many cells have cameras and it’s unclear when a picture’s being taken. But when cameras can be woven into clothing or invisibly integrated into buildings, how will we protect ourselves from unwanted observation? (photo Charles Krebs)

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