How Electronic Whiskers Will Help Robots 'See' Their Way Around The World

By Ben Wolford on January 24, 2014 11:27 AM EST

Berkeley Lab released this picture of carbon nanotube whiskers being sniffed by a cat with real whiskers. (Photo: Berkeley Lab)

Berkeley Lab released this picture of carbon nanotube whiskers being sniffed by a cat with real whiskers. (Photo: Berkeley Lab)

New electronic whiskers constructed at the Berkeley Lab at the University of California demonstrate that such synthetic devices could one day help robots feel their way around a room or measure someone's pulse. Berkeley Lab, which is funded in part by the Department of Energy, says its "e-whiskers" respond to pressure "as slight as a single Pascal," which is more or less the pressure you feel when you place a dollar bill on your open palm.

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"Our e-whiskers represent a new type of highly responsive tactile sensor networks for real time monitoring of environmental effects," says Ali Javey, the electrical engineer who developed the device, according to a news release. In English, that means e-whiskers are the newest mechanical way to "feel" the outside world. Robots that assemble cars are commonly outfitted with tactile sensors to help them grip parts, for example.

But e-whiskers are also the latest example of nature's brilliance. Mechanical engineers in recent months have released a heap of products that take inspiration from biological examples. There was a flying robot modeled on jellyfish, a versatile submersible modeled on a tutle, a chemical messaging system based on dog pee — the list goes on. Whiskers were a perfect muse for tactile sensor makers because they're one of nature's best feelers.

"Whiskers are hair-like tactile sensors used by certain mammals and insects to monitor wind and navigate around obstacles in tight spaces," Javey said. Get that? The e-whiskers can tell which way the wind blows, too. To demonstrate that the idea works, Javey and his team showed that the device could map the wind in both 2-D and 3-D. Their research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. "In the future," Berkeley Lab says, "e-whiskers could be used to mediate tactile sensing for the spatial mapping of nearby objects, and could also lead to wearable sensors for measuring heartbeat and pulse rate."

So how does it work? Carbon nanotubes filled with silver nanoparticles. To put it plainly: They took a spring, electrified it, and used silver to send pulses to a computer whenever the spring moved in the slightest. By perching little electronic whiskers at equal distances around a dome, they could precisely track the movement of the air around them.

This is what electronic whiskers look like. The red arrow will help you find them. (Photo: Berkeley Lab)
This is what electronic whiskers look like. The red arrow will help you find them. (Photo: Berkeley Lab)

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