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Micro-sized cameras have great potential to spot problems in the human body and enable sensing for super-small robots, but past approaches captured fuzzy, distorted images with limited fields of view.

An ultra-compact camera the size of a coarse grain of salt can produce crisp, full-color images on par with a conventional compound camera lens 500,000 times larger in volume.

The camera was developed by researchers at Princeton University and the University of Washington.

Enabled by a joint design of the camera’s hardware and computational processing, the system could enable minimally invasive endoscopy with medical robots to diagnose and treat diseases, and improve imaging for other robots with size and weight constraints. Arrays of thousands of such cameras could be used for full-scene sensing, turning surfaces into cameras.

While a traditional camera uses a series of curved glass or plastic lenses to bend light rays into focus, the new optical system relies on a technology called a metasurface, which can be produced much like a computer chip. Just half a millimeter wide, the metasurface is studded with 1.6 million miniaturized cylindrical posts, according to

A key innovation in the camera’s creation was the integrated design of the optical surface and the signal processing algorithms that produce the image. 

Beyond optimizing image quality, the researchers would like to add capabilities for object detection and other sensing modalities relevant for medicine and robotics.

The research was published in Nature Communications.