Robots with whiskers could navigate the dark like rats

A new tactile sensor array developed by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Illinois Advanced Digital Sciences Centre in Singapore mimics the way mammals like rats and seals use their whiskers to traverse dark environments.

Their creation, which is described in the Wednesday edition of the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, produces tomographic images by measuring fluid flow. The array provides a new alternative or complement to current navigational and tracking systems, and future versions of the system may shrink the technology system and take object content into consideration.

“Animals such as seals and rats sense the world through their whiskers,” Cagdas Tuna, lead author on the paper and postdoctoral researcher at the ADSC, explained to redOrbit via email. “This tactile sensing mechanism is very critical to these animals as they can hunt in the dark, explore surroundings or live underground.”

“Inspired by these whisking animals, we have developed a robotic whisker array system that uses tomographic imaging for fluid-flow field measurements,” he added. The sensor array consists of five artificial whiskers, each of which is made from super-elastic Nitinol wires covered by plastic straws. They measure approximately 15 cm in length and 3 mm in width.

Technology could be used in drones, biomedical applications

These wires have strain gauges installed at their bases measuring movement and repeating the measurements from different directions to generate tomographic images of the fluid flow, Tuna explained. He added that he and his colleagues are “currently working on a more advanced system to track moving objects and detect rapidly changing flow patterns.”

“We envision this technology has the strong potential to be an alternative sensory system for navigation, detection, and tracking particularly in dark conditions,” Tuna told redOrbit. “For example, whiskers could still provide information when cameras or other sensors may have blind spots or suffer poor resolution. This may find its use in aerial or submarine drones to improve performance in navigation, tracking, and obstacle avoidance.”

“With the integration of object contact capability, another potential use could be in biomedical applications including cardiac surgeries,” he added. “The use of a thin whiskered catheter tip may make it easier for surgeons to track the relative position inside the heart with the reduced risk of injury or atrial fibrillation.”

Tuna pointed out that tactile perception is extensively used in the animal kingdom, as creatures use the technique to collect information about the environment around them. Although current engineer systems do not fully exploit these tactile sensing strategies, he thinks there is an increased interest in the robotics community to mimic aspects of biological whiskers as a method for extending the sensory range of current robotics systems.

(Image credit: Cagdas Tuna / University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

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