Science Scope

New pinhead camera to revolutionize surgery, robotics

Posting in Energy

A tiny new camera costing pennies could transform fields as disparate as robotics, neuroscience, medicine, energy efficiency and smartphones, to name a few.

Given that cutting-edge cameras nowadays have 21 megapixels -- meaning, 21 million pixels -- it seems wrong that a mere 20-pixel camera should be news.

Oh, but it is when several of them can fit on the head of a pin.

A new microscopic camera developed by researchers at Cornell could revolutionize surgery, robotics and more. It has no lens, no moving parts and costs pennies to make -- which means it is perfect for, say, being "implanted in your skull to photograph neurons or used by satellites to measure the angle of the sun," writes Gizmodo.

It could also help tiny robots navigate in your body, be put on the end of an endoscope to give doctors a peek in or placed on a scalpel blade that images the tissue it's cutting, according to Fast Company.

Thinner than a human hair -- a hundredth of a millimeter deep and half a millimeter on either side -- the camera is made from an inexpensive material, doped silicon, which is already common in chip technology and looks like a tiny CD. It is much smaller and lighter than existing small cameras on chips; they often cost a dollar or more and require bulky focusing optics.

In the lens-less camera, however, "each pixel records one component of the image by measuring the individual incident angles within it. This disparate data is then patched together by a computer into a unified image," says Gizmodo.

Developed by Cornell researchers Alyosha Molnar and Patrick Gill, who published their work last week in Optics Letters, the camera was originally intended to be implanted near a living brain to pick up light from specific neurons and image brain activity.

As simple as it is, however, it has many more potential uses. Fast Company writes,

[I]t could be built into the fingertips of android robots to help them work out how to best hold an object, or even to aid with object recognition. Sensor arrays on buildings could use the camera to work out the angle of the sun, removing the need for more expensive timing units. Dozens of the devices could be integrated into the screen of a smartphone, to act as a lens-less webcam, or even a more sophisticated touch recognition system. Vacuum-cleaner robots could benefit from multiple camera angles to help them navigate and find every grubby corner of your home to clean.

"It's not going to be a camera with which people take family portraits, but there are a lot of applications out there that require just a little bit of dim vision," Gill said in a press release.

via: Fast Company, Gizmodo, Physorg.com

Photo: Left, the Mona Lisa; Right, the Mona Lisa in 20 pixels Courtesy Patrick Gill

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure