Lots of animals have whiskers, which they use for navigation in the dark or in narrow spaces. Cats, despite humanity’s best efforts, are largely nocturnal hunters, while rats and moles tend to live underground or in close spaces, relying on tunnels and warrens to get around. All these creatures use their whiskers to sense things that their eyes may not actually be able to see. Seals can sense fish with their whiskers by feeling the wake those fish leave as they swim by, while cats can tell if they can fit between two objects based on whether or not their whiskers touch those objects, and moles use them to navigate tunnels.
Now, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Illinois Advanced Digital Sciences Centre in Singapore have figured out how to make whiskers for robots. They’ve created a system of mechanical whiskers, 15cm long and 3mm wide, that send information to strain gauges, which in turn submit that information to a program that creates an image. So far, they’ve used them in fluid, so they’re most like the whiskers on a seal, but there is a lot of potential for uses in other places.
The researchers point out that there is no evidence that animals use their whiskers to build an image of their surroundings in their minds, but this model is useful for their purposes, and for human-controlled devices, that’s likely the only model that would work. The team used heart surgery as an example of how this technology is applicable. A small catheter tip, with whiskers, could be used to navigate arteries and within heart valves without damaging tissues.
Such robotic whiskers could have all kinds of uses, from rescue robots to exploration of the deep sea or underground. The technology is still very young, though, so it’ll be a while till robot cats are pulling people out of collapsed buildings–but the potential is pretty exciting.