Scientists have used nanotechnology to recreate the panoramic vision of a fly in an artificial eye. The invention could yield "smart clothes" that detect motion or better flight radar for small aircraft, according to a study in PNAS.

Small flying drones will soon become a part of everyday life. They can already fight fires and deliver beer at a rock festival, but navigation systems must be improved before drones are used in large numbers.

The newest drones are being designed to function like dragonflies, so that they can hover or quickly switch directions. This versatility of motion, however, requires panoramic vision or sensors that can see danger from all directions.

Scientists in Italy created a small robotic eye that mimics fly vision that could keep drones from colliding with each other in the future. The artificial eye is a curved bulb about the size of nickel and weighs less than two paperclips.

Dubbed "CurvACE," the artificial eye is dotted with hundreds of tiny, light-catching sensors, which are called ommatidia in flies.

The researchers used flexible materials to mimic the arched design of an eye which, in combination with the artifical ommatidia, allows CurvACE to rapidly absorb visual information from a panoramic field of vision.

Their major achievement was packing the features of a fly eye into such a small compartment. These features include a layer of microlenses that are interlaced with silicon light detectors and a circuit board to translate the visual information into digital for a computer.

And this artificial eye could be used for more than just flight navigation.

"Smart clothes" built with tiny sensors like CurvACE could monitor the body's movement in real time and instantly adapt the shape of the fabric to improve comfort. Or these ommatidia could be used "as sensors for intelligent homes, or integrated in the artificial skin of soft robots," wrote the authors.

Source: Floreano D, Pericet-Camara R, Viollet S, et al. Miniature curved artificial compound eyes. PNAS. 2013.