June 19, 2024


Super Technology

PiSpy, The Camera Setup Designed To Make Biological Observations Better


Back in grad school, we biology students were talking shop at lunch one day. We “lab rats” were talking about the tools of the trade, which for most of us included things like gel electrophoresis, restriction endonucleases, and polymerase chain reaction. Not to be left out, a fellow who studied fire ants chimed in that his main tool was a lawn chair, which he set up by a Dumpster in a convenience store parking lot to watch a fire ant colony. Such is the glamor of field biology.

Ants on the march. Tough luck for the crickets, though.

What our colleague [Mike] wouldn’t have given for something like PiSpy, the automated observation tool for organismal biology by [Greg Pask] of Middlebury College, et al. As discussed in the preprint abstract, an automated imaging platform can be key to accurate observations of some organisms, whose behavior might be influenced by the presence of a human observer, or even a grad student in a lawn chair. Plus, PiSpy offers all the usual benefits of automation — it doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t need to take bathroom breaks, and it can even work around the clock. PiSpy is based on commonly available components, like laser-cut plywood and a Raspberry Pi and camera, so it has the added advantage of being cheap and easy to produce — or at least it will be when the Pi supply picks back up again. PiSpy takes advantage of the Pi’s GPIO pins to enable triggering based on external events, or controlling peripherals like lights or servos.

While built for biological research, there are probably dozens of uses for something like PiSpy. It could be handy for monitoring mechanical testing setups, or perhaps for capturing UI changes during embedded device development. Or you could just use it to watch birds at a feeder. The source is all open-sourced, so whatever you make of PiSpy is up to you — even if it’s not for watching fire ants.


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