Making a bee-line for new camera technology

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The way humans perceive colour varies with the time of day, or rather the amount of sunlight falling on an object. And, unfortunately, current technology is as limited in color perception as the human eye. 

An interdisciplinary team of researchers in Melbourne, Australia, has discovered that for bees, however, color perception is constant, no matter the light conditions, so they can get to the right flower. 

If we could replicate the workings of bee vision, it would be possible to eliminate the problems associated with color vision in cameras, drones and robots.

Project coordinator Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said, “For a digital system like a camera or robot, the color of objects often change. Currently this problem is dealt with by assuming the world is, on average, grey. This means it's difficult to identify the true color of ripe fruit or mineral rich sands, limiting outdoor color imaging solutions by drones, for example.”

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Where physics and biology meet

Bees have three extra eyes (or ocelii) at the top of their heads which can sense the color of ambient light, thanks to a couple of color receptors. These ocelli are separate to the pair of front-facing compound eyes which detect flower colors.

Lead scientist Dr Jair Garcia from Melbourne’s RMIT University suggests that the sensing of the color of light by the ocelli “could allow a brain to discount the naturally colored illumination which would otherwise confuse color perception. But for this to be true the information from the ocelli would have to be integrated with colors seen by the compound eyes.”

Dr Yu-Shan Hung at the University of Melbourne corroborated Garcia’s statement by mapping the neural pathways from the ocelli and showed neurons did pass data on to the color processing parts of the bee brain.

Color revolution

The team has discovered the mathematical principles behind a honeybee’s complicated vision, which can then be programmed into a computer. This could completely revolutionise the camera systems in our smartphones, improving drone footage and making robots see better.

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“We're using bio-inspired solutions from nature to tackle key problems in visual perception. This discovery on color constancy can be implemented into imaging systems to enable accurate color interpretation,” Dyer added.

The results of this research have been published in the journal 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' (PNAS)

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