Many mammals have whiskers and, aside from being cute, the long wiry hairs serve important purposes. Each animal relies on them to explore their environment in different ways. Animals like seals and rats use them to find their way through dark environments.
Scientists working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Illinois' Advanced Digital Sciences Centre in Singapore have studied how animals use their whiskers and developed a robotic version that could help guide robots in the dark.
“When it is dark, whiskers play a key role for animals in exploring, hunting or even just living underground," said Cagdas Tuna, a lead author on the paper. “For example, seals can catch fish in the dark by following the hydrodynamic wake using their whiskers.”
The researchers developed a whisker-like tactile sensor array capable of creating images based on air or fluid flow around them, much like how a seal can "see" what's around it based on the movement of water around its whiskers.
The whiskers are made of five elastic Nitinol wires that are covered with plastic straws. Each whisker is 15 cm long and 3 mm wide and has a strain gauge attached to the base that measures its movement as fluid flows through the whiskers. The measurements are then analyzed to build the images.
The system could be used by robots instead of conventional vision, radar or sonar systems. Search and rescue robots could use it for navigating, tracking and detection in the dark or, if the system can be miniaturized, it could be used in biomedical applications like cardiac surgery.
The next step is to improve the system so that it can sense the content of objects around it, not just detect if an object is there. Right now it can only build 2-D images, but they are working on mapping in 3-D as well as being able to track the movement of an object.
The researchers plan to continue to study how animals use their whiskers to read their environment in different situations. There is still a lot that isn't understood and that information could improve future robotics.