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Crab-inspired artificial vision system works on land and underwater

It could lead to the development of amphibious systems with unconventional applications.

CSAIL/GIST/Seoul National University

There had been many previous attempts to develop cameras that mimic the eyes of insects, fish and other living creatures. However, development of artificial vision systems that can see both underwater and on land has apparently been pretty limited. Further, biomimetic cameras are usually restricted by their 180-degree field-of-view. Now, a team of scientists from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST) and Seoul National University in Korea have developed a new artificial vision system with a 360-degree field-of-view that can work on amphibious machines.

The team was inspired by the semi-terrestrial fiddler crab, which has a 3D omnidirectional field-of-view. They evolved to be able to look at almost everything at once on land and underwater to avoid attacks and to see communicate with fellow fiddler crabs. Scientists have apparently been having issues finding a way to sustain a camera's focusing capability when the environment changes, which is why this team has decided to take a closer look at the fiddler crab.

The resulting artificial eye is a nondescript black ball that combines various materials and lenses. Its configuration allows light rays from multiple sources to converge at the same spot regardless of the refractive index of its surrounding — in other words, whether the device is underwater or not. The team tested the technology by conducting in-air and in-water experiments: To be specific, they projected "cutesy" objects in the shape of a dolphin, an airplane, a submarine, a fish and a ship at different distances and in various angles onto the artificial vision system. The result? They found that their camera was successfully able to see the objects whether they were or weren't submerged in water.

Young Min Song, professor of electrical engineering and computer Science at GIST, said:

"Our system could be of use in the development of unconventional applications, like panoramic motion detection and obstacle avoidance in continuously changing environments, as well as augmented and virtual reality."

Other potential applications Song didn't mention include population surveillance and environmental monitoring, which could make the technology an invaluable tool for keeping a close eye on endangered, vulnerable and threatened species. You can check out the scientists' paper with more details about the new vision system in Nature.