Engineers have developed a curved camera designed to mimic insects' compound eyes. The hemispherical design gives a wide field-of-view with no aberrations and effectively infinite depth-of-field, with the hope it could be used in applications such as endoscopy or as visual sensors on unmanned aircraft. The current design uses 180 light-sensitive elements, each behind its own lens, but researchers hope to build one with 20,000 elements, giving a similar resolution to that seen by dragonflies.

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Because each sensor element looks through a single lens (presumably focused at the hyperfocal distance), the camera sees everything in focus in each direction. The differing perspective of each element makes the camera incredibly sensitive to motion.

The team, from The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign's Materials Science and Engineering department, worked with scientists and engineers across four countries, to develop the camera. The big development, reported in a letter to the journal Nature (doi:10.1038/nature12083), is the ability to construct the array of photosensitive elements on a curved surface. This was achieved by arranging the combined lenses and elements on a flexible material with deformable connections between each element. The backing material was then inflated to give a predetermined degree of curvature.

As well as developing higher resolution versions, the team also says it intends to try inflating or deflating the camera to allow changeable fields of view.

The work is essentially the inverse of the same team's previous work on a concave arrangement of sensors that captured an image from a simple lens.