Tiny video cameras mounted on the end of long thin fiber optic cables, commonly known as endoscopes, have proven invaluable to doctors and researchers wishing to peer inside the human body. Endoscopes can be rather pricey, however, and like anything else that gets put inside peoples' bodies, need to be sanitized after each use. A newly-developed type of endoscope is claimed to address those drawbacks by being so inexpensive to produce that it can be thrown away after each use. Not only that, but it also features what is likely the world's smallest complete video camera, which is just one cubic millimeter in size.

The prototype endoscope was designed at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration, in collaboration with Awaiba GmbH and the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering.

Ordinarily, digital video cameras consist of a lens, a sensor, and electrical contacts that relay the data from the sensor. Up to 28,000 sensors are cut out from a silicon disc known as a wafer, after which each one must be individually wired up with contacts and mounted to a lens.

In Fraunhofer's system, contacts are added to one side of the sensor wafer while it's still all in one piece. That wafer can then be joined face-to-face with a lens wafer, after which complete grain-of-salt-sized cameras can be cut out from the two joined wafers. Not only is this approach reportedly much more cost-effective, but it also allows the cameras to be smaller and more self-contained – usually, endoscopic cameras consist of a lens at one end of the cable, with a sensor at the other.

The new camera has a resolution of 62,500 pixels, and it transmits its images via an electrical cable, as opposed to an optical fiber. Its creators believe it could be used not only in medicine, but also in fields such as automotive design, where it could act as an aerodynamic replacement for side mirrors, or be used to monitor drivers for signs of fatigue.

They hope to bring the device to market next year.