Video: Robot whiskers sense their environment

Researchers have developed a robot that hops like a frog and even one that walks on water—and now they’ve made one that feels. No, this machine doesn’t get happy or sad; it has whiskers that let it sense its environment. Inspired by rats and seals, scientists have developed a robotic “whisker” that detects air currents and builds two-dimensional images of what it senses using tomography, an imaging technique commonly implemented in MRI or CT scans. As seen in the video above, the team attached five whiskers to a horizontally fixed carpenter’s level. The whiskers consisted of superelastic nickel titanium wires covered with plastic straws to increase exposure to the flow of air. Then they blew air into the robotic whiskers, measuring how much each whisker moved at its base. Electrical signals from these subtle movements allowed the machine to image the flow of air. Researchers believe this technology—published online today in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics—could be used in aerial or submarine drones to improve navigation, as well as extend the sensory range of current robotic systems, which is limited to vision, radar, and sonar.