Colourful mantis shrimp on the sea floor

Mantis shrimp’s super-vision inspires ultra-sensitive colour-polarisation camera

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers at the University of Illinois-Champaign have created an ultra-sensitive camera inspired by the vision system of the mantis shrimp.

The mantis shrimp has arguably the most advanced eyes in nature. While humans have three different types of cone cells – which allow us to see red, green, blue, and combinations of these colours, the mantis shrimp has sixteen different types of cone, and six polarisation channels. This allows them to see things that are invisible – and unimaginable – to humans.

“The animal kingdom is full of creatures with much more sensitive and sophisticated eyes than our own,” said Professor Viktor Gruev, a University of Illinois engineer, and co-author of the study.

Among the things invisible to humans is the polarisation of light: the direction in which waves of light oscillation. Mantis shrimp (and some other marine creatures) are equipped with polarised vision, which allows them to hunt, flee, communicate and navigate.

Different wavelengths (colours) of light penetrate materials at different depths. In the eye of a mantis shrimp, light-sensitive elements are stacked on top of each other, allowing for short wavelength light (blue light) to be absorbed in shallow photoreceptors and long wavelength light (red light) to be absorbed in deeper photoreceptors. As these tiny photoreceptors are arranged in a “periodic fashion”, the shrimp can detect polarisation of light.

Professor Gruev and his colleagues set out to recreate this complex visual system in a camera.

By stacking photodiodes atop one another in silicon, a digital camera can be used to view colour. Combining this with metal nanowires allows for the researchers to replicate part of the shrimp’s visual system, detecting polarisation as well as colour.

The researchers used this structure as the basis for a point-and-shoot colour-polarisation camera, which they named “Mantis Cam”.

Mantis Cam could be used for early cancer detection, given that polarisation sensors have been demonstrated to be effective in detecting cancerous cells in the colon during a colonoscopy. The camera could also have research applications, helping marine biologists studying the sea to understand how marine creatures communicate using polarised light.

“By mimicking the mantis shrimp visual system, we have created a unique camera that can be used to improve the quality of our lives,” said Professor Gruev. “The notion that we can detect early formation of cancer is what is driving this research forward.”

“The cost of this technology is less than $100, which will enable quality healthcare in resource-limited places around the world.”

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