MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Through most of human history, engineers have been building big - think pyramids, skyscrapers, rockets. But now, in the electronic age, the challenge is building small. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, some engineers are taking inspiration from some of Earth's smallest inhabitants.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: It seems like my smartphone can do anything, but it can't. Pick up that pen and hand it to me.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't know what that means. If you like, I can search the Web.
BRUMFIEL: Thanks, but no. Engineers would like to build little gadgets to do stuff in the real world. They'd be useful for a lot more than just picking up pens, but right now we don't know how to make them.
MICHAEL DICKINSON: Gears and rotors and belts and pistons and all the things that, you know, work really well at large scales, they just don't work at small scales.
BRUMFIEL: Michael Dickinson is not an engineer. He's a zoologist at the University of Washington. Dickinson's crazy about flies. His email is "flyman." He'll tell you insects are the ultimate micromachines. They've got acute sensors, superfast reflexes and lots of little moving parts.
DICKINSON: Insects just excel at small. They really do small well.
BRUMFIEL: This week, two groups of engineers have unveiled new machines that rip off insects. The first, published in the journal Nature, is a miniature camera. It looks just like a bug's compound eye, and works like one, too. John Rogers, an engineer at the University of Illinois, developed the dime-sized camera by staring deep into the eyes of a bark beetle.
JOHN ROGERS: It's just this amazing rainbow of colors and this amazing hemispherical shape in what is otherwise kind of an ugly beetle insect. And it only gets more interesting when you start to think about the details.
BRUMFIEL: An insect's compound eye sees really well because each of its light-sensitive cells has its own dedicated lens. Insects have a huge field of view. They are highly sensitive to motion, and they keep everything in focus automatically. Copying that design lets Rogers' camera do things that no other camera can.
ROGERS: So you place an object very close to a camera with this design or, you know, an insect's very close to an object, the object is in crisp focus and as it moves away, it stays in focus.
BRUMFIEL: Rogers thinks his new camera could be used in hard-to-reach places - looking inside the human body, for example, or for surveillance. The second piece of insect imitation is published today in Science magazine. Robert Wood, an engineer at Harvard University, has spent more than a decade trying to make miniature robots that can fly. Individually, they might search through rubble of a collapsed building; swarms of them could help pollinate crops.
Kevin Ma is one of Wood's graduate students. He says the team has drawn inspiration from insects' tiny flapping wings.
KEVIN MA: Flapping wings seem to be a viable solution, seeing as there are trillions of insects taunting us with their abilities.
BRUMFIEL: The team built their robot by layering different materials together and folding it up.
MA: By hand, with tweezers under a microscope.
BRUMFIEL: The result, a robotic fly. It looks like a toothpick with little fairy wings. They don't have room for a battery or a computer yet, so it flies while attached to a little power cable. For a while anyway.
MA: Their flight muscles break, quite fragile flight muscles and also, the shoulder hinge of the wings will fatigue and fail after about 10 minutes.
BRUMFIEL: It'll be a while before I can send the flybots out with their powerful bug eyes to grab my pen. In the meantime, zoologist Dickinson says that insects will continue to inspire engineers. And they should.
DICKINSON: It's been the age of insects for about 400 million years, so I think it's, you know, it's very appropriate to spend some of our energy trying to figure out how they work and sort of see the world from their perspective.
BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
BLOCK: And at NPR.org, you can see a video of that fly robot Geoff Brumfiel was talking about and something that's really cool - I'm looking at it now. It's a real fly in slow motion.