This teeny little camera lens from the University of Stuttgart is so small it can be slipped over the tip of a strand of fiber optic. The three-lens camera, which can focus as close as 3 millimeters, is so tiny that it can be injected—complete with the attached fiber—into the human body using a standard hypodermic syringe. And they can be churned out by the hundreds, or made with a very specific design, because the lenses are 3D printed.
If printed onto the end of an optic fiber, the lens becomes a camera that can be inserted into any part of the human body, including the brain. This gives doctors unprecedented access to our internal organs, as well as allowing all existing kinds of keyhole observation without having to jab in a regular-sized endoscope.
But medicine is only one use for this miniature camera. An imaging device this hard to spot is also perfect for covert surveillance. Forget placing almost-invisible microphones to spy on enemies—now you can plant a camera that looks like the full-stop on a hotel information card, although you’re going to need an imaging sensor to actually capture the pictures. But the little lenses have this covered, too (quite literally). The lenses can be printed direct onto a CMOS image sensor (seen in the photo), for an ultra compact camera. This could lead to bee-sized spy drones, or just arrays of tiny cameras all around the body of a self-driving car.
Perhaps the most impressive part of this is the printing technique itself. The researchers used lasers with ultra-short pulses, and focused them through a microscope onto a liquid polymer. After that, the procedure is just like a regular 3D printer, only smaller. The lasers harden the polymer where they hit it, and build up the 3D model layer by layer. The main difference is that each pulse only delivers two photons to the polymer, giving new meaning to the phrase “pixel perfect.”
The technique used by the researchers opens up the possibility of 3D printing all kinds of tiny objects and machines. As the research team told Phys.org:
The unprecedented flexibility of our method paves the way towards printed optical miniature instruments such as endoscopes, fibre-imaging systems for cell biology, new illumination systems, miniature optical fibre traps, integrated quantum emitters and detectors, and miniature drones and robots with autonomous vision.
The cameras can also be used in reverse, to make super small LED lights, for example. But really, you can come up with anything you like and build it fast, because, after all, this is 3D printing. “The time from the idea, the optics design, a CAD model, to the finished, 3D-printed micro-objectives is going to be less than a day,” team leader Professor Harald Giessen said in a news release. “We are going to open potentials just like computer-aided design and computer-integrated manufacturing did in mechanical engineering a few years ago.”
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