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Surprising Science

For Better Sensory Input, Get Some (Artificial) Whiskers

Vibrissal sensors, which mimic rodent whiskers, can make tasks safer and easier in a wide range of products, from firefighter helmets to vacuum cleaners.

Article written by guest writer Kecia Lynn

What’s the Latest Development?

Sensor system design is going in a new direction by taking a page from the animal world: Scientists participating in the Biotact project studied various rodents to examine how whiskers worked and then created a set of robots that can move around using touch alone. “Vibrissal sensors” (taken from the technical term for whiskers, “vibrissae”) allow the robots to feel its way around rather than bump into things, as well as provide the ability to follow another object in motion without moving themselves. Also, unlike other sensors, these keep working even when they’re damaged, and can be replaced easily and cheaply.

What’s the Big Idea?

Theoretically, “artificial whiskers” could be used in a wide range of applications. Tony Prescott, a professor participating in the BioTact project, says, “We wanted to ensure that these sensors can be used as universally as possible, so you could go into a store and buy one much like you can buy a webcam today and mount it on any robot or any device.” Firefighters could use them in devices that help with finding people in danger, and they could be added to helmets to provide feedback about the environment. Medical and manufacturing industries could benefit as well. Currently, development costs are still high but Prescott and his team have already talked to companies: “[T]here’s definitely interest in this.” One potentially cool application: A better, much more sensitive robot vacuum cleaner.

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