Robot navigates using whiskers alone

A new robot can follow a moving target around without any optical sensors – or, indeed, any sensing technology at all apart from whiskers.

The Shrewbot’s developers say it could be used for everything from finding people in burning buildings, improving keyhole surgery – and even making vacuum cleaners more efficient.

“If you look at the natural world, almost all mammals except humans have whiskers – it’s actually us that have lost them. Whiskers are a natural way to sense things with touch,’ says Professor Tony Prescott ofthe UK’s University of Sheffield.

The team’s system works by measuring the vibration at the base of the  whisker when it comes into contact with an object or surface. Tiny motors enable individual whiskers or arrays of hundreds to be moved and brushed against objects.

Then, processing algorithms analyse the feedback from the whiskers to determine, for example, whether a surface is rough or smooth, if there is a corner or wall or how far away an object is.

“Shrewbot can even follow a moving object simply by using its whiskers. It has no visual sensors or any other type of sensing device,” says Prescott.

Because the Biotact artificial whisker is modular, it can be used for many different robots and devices.

“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,” says Prescott.

“At the moment, the price of the technology is still relatively high, but we envisage that coming down over time and we’ve talked to some manufacturers – there’s definitely interest in this.”

There could be an enormous number of applications. The system could be used to help fire-fighters find people in burning buildings; and an aquatic version is under development for murky underwater environments.

In medicine, vibrissal sensors could eventually provide highly sensitive tactile feedback to doctors performing keyhole surgery. And in vacuum cleaners, the system could automatically detect different surfaces and switch settings to ensure the most effective cleaning.