Cornell Researchers Develop Lens-Free, Pinhead-Sized Camera
Costing just pennies per unit, the disruptive imaging technology could revolutionize robotic sensing for certain applications.
By Robotics Trends' News Sources - Filed Jul 07, 2011

The Planar Fourier Capture Array camera takes images from an array of angle-sensitive pixels. For example, at right, the camera reconstructed an image of the Mona Lisa. (Credit: Alyosha Molnar Lab/Cornell University)

Researchers at Cornell University have developed a microscopic imaging device no larger than the head of a pin. The revolutionary device contains no lenses or moving parts and costs pennies to make – all factors, which the school says could revolutionize an array of technological fields, from robotics to surgery, according to a prepared statement.

The camera was invented in the lab of Alyosha Molnar, Cornell assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and developed by a group led by Patrick Gill, a postdoctoral associate. Their working prototype, detailed online in the journal Optics Letters (July 6, 2011), is 100th of a millimeter thick, and one-half millimeter on each side. The camera resolves images about 20 pixels across, and while the results are not portrait studio quality, the resolution is sufficient to distinguish previously hard-to-see objects.

“There are a lot of applications out there that require just a little bit of dim vision,” Gill said. In fact, Gill whose other research interests involve making sense of how the brain’s neurons fire under certain stimuli, began developing the device as a side project related to work on creating lens-less implantable systems that could be used for imaging brain activity. This type of imaging system could be useful as part of an implantable probe for imaging neurons that have been modified to glow when they are active.   

Gill’s camera consists of a flat piece of doped silicon, which looks something like a tiny CD. It contains no parts that require off-chip manufacturing. As a result, the device costs just a few cents to make and is incredibly small and light, as opposed to conventional small cameras on chips that cost a dollar or more and require bulky focusing optics.

The scientists call their camera a Planar Fourier Capture Array (PFCA) because it uses the principles of the Fourier transform, which is a mathematical tool that allows multiple ways of capturing the same information. Each pixel in the PFCA reports one component of the Fourier transform of the image being detected by being sensitive to a unique blend of incident angles.  While Fourier components themselves are sometimes directly useful, a bit of computation can also transform Fourier components into an image.

The scientists will continue working to improve the camera’s resolution and efficiency, but they think their concept can lead to a myriad of applications. It could be a component in any cheap electronic system – in devices that, for example, detect the angle of the sun or a micro-robot that requires a simple visual system to navigate.

Funding for this work was provided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Institutes of Health.

SOURCE: Cornell University


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