Imagine this: Every time you wanted to focus on something in your peripheral vision, you had to turn your whole head and torso instead of just moving your eyes. It would be a pain in the ass, yet it’s what robots that use cameras have had to do up until now. Researchers at Georgia Tech say they’ve changed that with a muscle-like device that allows cameras to mimic the human eye’s independent movement.

While the work is still in the lab, lead researcher Joshua Schultz said if any of the potential partners who have approached his adviser Dr. Jun Ueda were to commit, the technology could be on the market in about a year. The implications are vast, including safer and more effective MRI-guided surgery, robotic rehabilitation for eye damage and more advanced military and surveillance applications.

By using electric pulses to move muscle-like components, Schultz and Ueda have found a way around the slow, loud and inefficient servo motors being used in most robotic cameras. Like the human body, this system only uses the amount of energy it needs in order to get the job done. These piezoelectric cellular actuators allow for much more flexibility and open the doors to many exciting advances in optics.

“The fine degree of control of the camera is impressive on its own, but the potentially greater impact is the demonstration of this muscle-like actuator as a general driving force,” says Devin Neal, an MIT researcher who is one of the few other engineers working in the field. ”Such applications may be directly related to the eye such as shutter control like an eyelid, or optical zoom...”