High-tech camera acts like a bug's eye

(CNN) -- The next generation of digital cameras could show us how bugs see the world.

Researchers have created a digital camera that imitates the bulging eyes of insects, specifically fire ants and bark beetles. The cameras can capture a 160-degree-wide field of view with nearly infinite depth of field, meaning all areas of the photo will be in focus. The tiny domes are covered in 180 microlenses, each capturing a unique angle of the subject.

The team of insect-admiring engineers and builders set out to make a man-made camera that recreated how bugs see the world.

"We feel that the insect world provides extremely impressive examples of engineering -- in the vision, flight, power and sensing systems. I, personally, have been intrigued by the insect eye for as long as I can remember," said professor John Rogers of the University of Illinois, who worked on the camera.

What would would be the practical use of a bug-eye camera?

While still in the early stages, this technology could be used to create high-resolution surveillance cameras that capture a large, expansive scene, all in sharp focus. It would also have interesting practical applications for endoscopic cameras, the small devices doctors use to peek inside the human body.

"Nature provides a remarkable diversity of ideas for designs in cameras," said Rogers. "We think that it will be interesting to explore some of these, because in many cases, the concepts offer unique and powerful capabilities in imaging."

Tradition digital cameras have a flat sensor and a single camera lens. The working prototypes of this digital camera have hundreds of lenses instead of one and bend the basic elements found in a digital camera into a rounded shape.

The researchers combined thin silicon sheets of photodiodes and elastic microlenses and stretched them into a hemisphere. The images are recorded in their original shape on a computer, though they can be flattened if necessary to print out a hard copy.

Researchers were inspired by the advanced eyes of arthropods, a group that includes crustaceans, spiders and insects.

Their dome-shaped eyes are packed with multiple tiny eye elements topped with corneal lenses. The first digital camera prototype is closest to the fire ant's compound eyes, which only have 180 of these optical units, called ommatidia.

The praying mantis has about 15,000 and the dragonfly approximately 28,000, while the worker ant has only 100.

The resolution of the experimental camera is on par with the fire ant, but researchers think they can improve that with more advanced manufacturing facilities.

"We now believe that we have a set of materials and fabrication techniques that allow us to build not only insect eyes, but also ocular organs found in other creatures in nature," said Rogers.

The team is already looking forward to the next version of the technology: digital cameras that imitate the compound eyes of shrimp, lobsters, moths and houseflies.