Look Mom! No Batteries: Columbia University Team Creates 3D Printed Self-Powered Video Camera

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300px-ColumbiaEngineeringLOGORemember, not long ago at all, how much of your paycheck you put into that very special 35mm camera, complete with elaborate, important lenses and a comfy neck strap? How about all the weekends spent with one hand looped inside that weighty, battery-operated video camera, filming sports, parties, kids, and fun?

Today those once-pricey electronics have probably either gone to eBay or Goodwill, or are sadly gathering dust in your closet, discarded as obsolete relics. It’s a little bittersweet seeing the old equipment cast aside, as cameras are often the path to preserving both memories and emotions.

Just as quickly as technology climbs upward and onward away from the traditional camera, the high-tech world of innovation, as well as 3D printing takes us right back to it, offering not only a video camera that can survive off the grid and sustain itself through solar power, but one that offers release from batteries—as well as serious implications for what we can do in the future.


Created by a team at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, a camera encased in a 3D printed body operates without traditional battery power, alternating between gleaning images and converting light to energy.

The prototype camera, completely self-sustaining, can power itself continually. The key is the image sensor with diodes that can go back and forth between using light to generate electricity and current for measuring light and producing the image, as well as retaining solar light as pure power to run the device.

“A few different designs for image sensors that can harvest energy have been proposed in the past,” Shree K. Nayar, the professor who led the team, said in a release about the project. “However, our prototype is the first demonstration of a fully self-powered video camera.”

teaserThe team is composed of Nayar, research engineer Daniel Sims, and consultant Mikhail Fridberg of ADSP Consulting. Once the team realized that solar panels and digital cameras are basically made from the same things, albeit performing two different tasks in converting and measuring, respectively, they were able to put together the equation for building the self-powered camera.

With ‘off-the-shelf components’ the team constructed an image sensor featuring 30×40 pixels. The sensor is encompassed within the protective 3D printed body. As photos are captured, pixels record and read the images and then second, they capture the energy and use it, essentially, as a charger.

“We are in the middle of a digital imaging revolution,” says Nayar, who directs the Computer Vision Laboratory at Columbia Engineering. “I think we have just seen the tip of the iceberg. Digital imaging is expected to enable many emerging fields including wearable devices, sensor networks, smart environments, personalized medicine, and the Internet of Things. A camera that can function as an untethered device forever–without any external power supply–would be incredibly useful.”

Are you currently tethered to your technology, and growing tired of the constraints, despite the conveniences? It’s certainly one of the larger—and more ironic—contemporary questions and ongoing conversations as we consider the benefits and drawbacks of progressive technology and innovation, wondering whether we are controlling it, or vice versa.pow_exp

Aside from that of true shutterbug professionals, the technology of smartphones swiftly transformed the world of basic photography for most of us though, conveniently lodging our cameras for both still shots and video inside battery-driven phones. And while the original camera was often battery-driven as well, it’s a much more common occurrence to rush to snap a great picture, only to find, panicking, that your phone is out of juice and you are about to miss that award-winning shot.

While technology drives us forward, it also in many ways enslaves us to the battery. How many of us currently have a note on our “to do” list to buy batteries for the TV or Roku remote, or to look into a battery offering longer life or a boost for the phone? Living in a world so beholden to battery power is certainly something most of us find frustrating at times.

This device is important not only in what it can do for video cameras in terms of offering around-the-clock surveillance operations without requiring traditional electricity, but the concept could also be used for other items like smartphones and wearable smart watches. And who knows where it morphs from there, but we can all most likely agree on one thing we like to see: No batteries required.

Nayar and his team are presenting their work their 3D printed camera prototype during the International Conference on Computational Photography to be held at Rice University in Houston, Texas, from April 24 to 26. Funded by the Office of Naval Research, you can find out more about their 3D printed camera and project in the research paper, “Toward Self-Powered Cameras,” authored by the team.

What do you think about this self-powered camera, sporting a 3D printed body? What implications do you see for a product like this down the line? Tell us your thoughts in the 3D Printed Self-Powered Video Camera forum over at 3DPB.com.

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