Fly Eyes Inspire Better Video Cameras, Motion Detection

Kelly Hearn
for National Geographic News
September 7, 2006
Put down that swatter and pick up a microscope.

That pesky fly's eyes hold an important blueprint for creating better video cameras, military target-detection systems, and surveillance equipment, Australian researchers say.

Flies can spot movement in shadows and see moving objects against interference-filled backgrounds. Such abilities could have military applications.

And camera makers covet the insect's skill at piecing together a complete image when there are large variations in the level of light. Traditional cameras clumsily rely on single levels of brightness for their images, leading to overexposed photos.

So Russell Brinkworth, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Adelaide, devised software that sees the same way a fly does.

"About three and half years ago we set out to mimic the first stage of transforming light into electricity inside the fly's brain," he said.

By copying the fly's visual power, "[we hope to] improve how information from the real world gets into cameras and systems and then maximize that information," Brinkworth said.

Model for Success

Brinkworth used off-the-shelf components such as resistors, capacitors, and light sensors to build an electronic model of the fly's visual system.

He already has the software working on a standard PC and has used it to enhance video.

Brinkworth eventually plans to shrink the prototype and place it on a microchip that could go between a camera's sensor and its digital converter.

This would allow the camera to capture more complete images—such as, for instance, both the face of a person standing in front of a sunlit window and the scene outside.

There will also be power savings.

Research funded by the U.S. military currently runs similar optical calculations using six standard PCs, Brinkworth says.

But the hundred million or so nerves in an insect brain use less than one ten-thousandth of a watt—or less than one-millionth the power of a standard light bulb.

Brinkworth's prototypes are showing similar savings.

"In the end stage, if we add these [devices] to cameras, hardly any extra power would be needed," he said.

But Brinkworth is guarding the exact details of his work for commercial reasons.

Smart Cameras

Brinkworth's work is part of a larger effort to give human-made vision systems such as security cameras the same robust seeing power as living eyes. (Related: "Animal Eyes Provide High-Tech Optical Inspiration" [December 2005].)

Cells in living eyes each work individually to adjust to various parts of an image. So they can produce a more detailed picture of the world, Brinkworth says.

"Millions of years of evolution have given living vision systems the ability to handle a wide variation in light," said Reid Harrison, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

"Digital cameras and chemical film don't have the same latitude."

Engineers want software that can mimic biological photoreceptors and higher-level visual processing. Others are interested in motion detection.

"Movement detection is key to security and defense applications," Brinkworth said. "When someone is creeping in shadow, you want that to pop out more."

The U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research funded early stages of his project. The military group wants target-detection systems that spot fast-moving objects in "noisy" surroundings, such as planes or missiles zooming across a cloudy sky.

"This is providing some interesting and rather unexpected results, which could lead to novel, biologically-inspired solutions to digital image compression and recovery," said Mandyam Srinivasan, director of the Center for Visual Sciences at the Australian National University, who is familiar but unassociated with Brinkworth's project.

But the development challenges remain daunting.

"Some say roughly half of the brain deals with visual information in some way, and roughly half of an insect's brain is also dedicated just to seeing," the University of Utah's Harrison said. "So there is a lot more to be done after these initial stages."

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