Electronic whiskers could give robots an ultra-fine sense of their environment


Credit: Aphoto Angel

Whether you think about it or not, your skin is constantly feeding you information about your surroundings: how strong the wind is blowing, or if you are brushing against a wall. For many animals, whiskers augment these sensations, and can also help animals locate objects, navigate through water and more.

Robots, it turns out, would also benefit from having whiskers. Researchers want robots to sense their environment as realistically as possible, and relying on sight isn’t always enough. Robots might need to know the texture of an object or how firmly they can grasp it before it breaks. Or they might need to know how fast the wind is blowing to calculate the best way to open a door.

Electronic whiskersElectronic whiskers, revealed today by University of California-Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers, could be a solution. They are modeled on cat and rat whiskers and capable of sensing the pressure equivalent of a dollar bill resting on a table. They are not the first whiskers developed for a robot, but they are a new variety and the most sensitive.

“Our e-whiskers represent a new type of highly responsive tactile sensor networks for real time monitoring of environmental effects,” research lead Ali Javey said in a release. “In tests, these whiskers were 10 times more sensitive to pressure than all previously reported capacitive or resistive pressure sensors.”

The whiskers are made of elastic fibers covered in carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles. The nanotubes lend them conductivity and flexibility, while the nanoparticles help them sense when they are even slightly bent.

The research team believes the whiskers could be used for biological applications or human-machine interfaces, in addition to robotics. For example, they could sense someone’s heart beat or pulse. The researchers were able to use a prototype to create a 3D model of wind flow. Whiskers could also complement the existing array of patches and electronic skins researchers have developed to give robots a more life-like sense of their environment.

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