Editorial Feature

Biomimetic Whiskers Help Robots Navigate in the Dark

Rat using biomimetic whiskers in dark

By Oleksandr Lysenko/ Shutterstock

Rats are known to use their whiskers to help navigate dark spaces like sewers and now they have inspired a sensor. This tactile sensor can be used in drones or robots to help navigate small, dark spaces. Scientists have developed the device which is able to generate numerous images of obscured or unlit environment by using air and fluid flow. It is thought that this technology could also be used for biomedical applications.

A coalition between the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Advanced Digital Sciences Center in Singapore has created a unique sensor using super-elastic Nitinol wires which have been coated with simple plastic straws.

The researchers developed each whisker to measure approximately 6 inches long and 0.12 inches thick. The system uses strain gauges which are attached at the base and is able to track the individual motions of each whisker by applying an air flow. This is done using a regular hair dryer.

Although the hair dryer has not provided a strong signal strength as a source of airflow, the whisker sensor, known as the Whisker Array, was capable of capturing the airflow patterns with precision and accuracy.

"We measured the amount of bending due to the impinging air-flow with the whisker array from multiple directions to produce tomographic images of the air-flow similar to a CT scan," lead researcher, Cagdas Tuna, states in a recent interview. "We also repeated these experiments in an open water channel using a water pump to extract 2-D cross-sectional images of the generated water-flow."

While there is yet to be evidence to prove that animals such as rats and seals use their whiskers to create imagery in their brains, it is known that they do aid in navigating around obstacles and dark spaces. The system is therefore inspired by this nature and is also able to work alongside already existing methods or tracking and navigating, which typically use radar or sonar technology in order to map environments in the dark.

The research team at the university have now begun to focus on improving the technology. This includes improving the imaging model and reducing the size of the system in the hopes to make it more versatile.

"This may even find use in biomedical applications, such as cardiac surgery," Tuna continues. "A thin-whiskered catheter tip could be used during surgery to track the relative position inside the heart, potentially reducing the risk of injury, or atrial fibrillation.” (Lavars, 2015)

This is not the first whisker-inspired based project. During the early months of 2014, a Berkeley Lab research team managed to create a tactile sensor which was based on a cat’s whiskers. The animal inspired technology was able to respond to incredible small pressure, such as a dollar bill resin on a table.

Both of these robotic whisker technologies are thought to be suited to environments were more traditional mapping technologies, like radar and sonar have failed. The University of Illinois’ research team believe that their technology could have applications in underwater vehicles where it would be used to efficiently navigate around obstacles in clouded waters.

Lavars, N. (2015, August 6). Robotic whiskers may get a feel for navigating in the dark. Retrieved from New Atlas: https://newatlas.com/robo-whiskers-biomimicry-dark-navigation/38784/

Sharpe, L. (2015, August 5). Help Robots Navigate Through Dark and Murky Environments. Retrieved from Popular Science: https://www.popsci.com/robo-whiskers-could-help-robots-navigate-through-dark-and-murky-environments#page-3


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