Birds of prey like eagles or hawks are estimated to have eyesight at least five times stronger than humans. Tests have shown that an eagle can spot a rabbit on the ground from nearly two miles away - 3.2 kilometers to be exact. That's the equivalent, for humans, of spotting an ant on the ground from the top of a 10-story building.
So it's hard to decide whether this is good news or bad news: European scientists have developed a miniaturized camera lens system, inspired by eagle vision, that can potentially give surveillance drones the kind of telephoto raptor vision previously restricted to the animal kingdom.
Published this week in the journal Science Advances, the research involves a technique called foveated imaging, in which objects in the dead center of a given field of view are captured with supercharged acuity.
It can help to think of it like this: You know those point-of-view "eagle eye" effects you see sometimes in movies or nature programs? Where the sides of the image are blurred, but the target image in the center seems magnified?
Well, it turns out that effect is actually pretty accurate: This is how raptors with foveated vision see their prey when they're hunting - and it's the inspiration for the new miniaturized camera system.
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"If we look at evolution, foveated vision is common with birds of prey," said researcher Simon Thiele, in an email exchange from the University of Stuttgart. "It seems to give an advantage especially for observation when the bird/drone has to be aware of its surroundings, but at the same time to able to gain a maximum of information about a point of interest."
By replicating the raptor vision with a series of tiny stacked lenses, Thiele and his team have created a kind of artificial eyeball that can be incorporated into cameras, sensors and robots.
"So we could be able to build drones which have the vision of eagles," Thiele said.