Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Uh oh, that fly has a wafer-scale camera

..John Wallace
..Senior Editor
..Laser Focus World

Predictions for the future of humanity range from an expansion of the human race throughout the universe to a quick self-extinction based on nuclear war or biological agents. On a just slightly less-grand scale, some prognosticators say that within a few decades we will have melded with machines, our thoughts and memories flowing throughout electronic or quantum-optical circuits. (Others would say to this, "Bah.")

But what is next, really? I'll just make one prediction: the rise of lethal nano unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Here, "nano" means the size of insects. Hummingbird-sized UAVs have been around for a few years, as have those the size of dragonflies.1,2 Real insects are also being turned into flying "cyborgs" for various purposes.3,4 There is now even a technical journal devoted to the topic: the International Journal of Micro Air Vehicles.5

Larger UAVs, of course, some quite lethal, are already in operation. But the smaller ones have been described mainly as sensing devices, often for surveillance. The ideal, which I believe will be achieved within a few years, is to shrink them from the size of a dragonfly to something much smaller -- say, that of a housefly or mosquito.

For example
But a mosquito does more than sense its surroundings; it also can deliver an itch-causing toxin to a human or animal. Perhaps all a nano UAV would need is a needle and some toxin to take out a target. Or a fly-sized surveillance nano UAV could work in concert with a larger, more lethal nano UAV. All this would hinge upon getting enough power to the UAV (such as in Ref. 4), and creating optical sensors small and light enough to be carried along. Wafer-scale cameras fit the bill nicely.

Through-silicon-via technology enables
low-cost CMOS cameras smaller than a
match head. (Image: Awaiba GmbH)

I'm just making a guess (meaning I have no insider info!). Is my prediction an obvious one ("Anyone coulda guessed that")? A lunatic one (“Here’s a tinfoil hat for you, young fella”)? I don’t know, but I’d love to hear from Laser Focus World readers about their own ideas for what strange photonics-enabled devices might be appearing in our future.







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