Shape of things to comeResearchers develop "whiskered" robots with rat-like tactile sensitivity

Published 13 February 2008

Whiskered robots could be used in a variety of applications — search and rescue, mine-clearing, planetary rovers in space, and domestic applications such as vacuum cleaners

We can learn a thing or two about tactile sensitivity from the humble Norwegian rat and Etruscan shrew. Researchers at Sheffield University agree, and are part of a £5.9 million project to develop touch technology for robots by taking cues from the animal kingdom. Bringing together nine research groups from seven countries, BIOTACT (Biomimetic Technology for vibrissal Active Touch) aims to create novel biometric computational methods and technologies for active touch sensing to develop innovative artificial touch technologies, including a “whiskered” robot. The project aims to recreate how animals such as the Norwegian rat and the Etruscan shrew make sense of their environment in low light conditions by sweeping their whiskers back and forth at high speeds in a controlled manner. This allows them to determine the shape and surface of objects and track and capture prey.

Using this technology the team will develop two machines including a whiskered robot that can seek-out, identify and track fast-moving target objects. “Overall, our project will bring about a step-change in the understanding of active touch sensing and in the use of whisker-like sensors in intelligent machines,” said Professor Tony Prescott, lead researcher at Sheffield. “Today’s life-like machines, such as robots, don’t make effective use of touch. By learning from nature and developing technologies that do use this physical sense, our researchers will be able to enhance the capabilities of the machines of the future.” The team believe the technology could be used in a range of technology including search and rescue robots, mine-clearing machines, and planetary rovers in space, as well as domestic applications such as vacuum cleaners.

Other project partners include Bristol Robotics Lab, Berlin Centre for Computational Neuroscience, Ben Gurion University in Israel, and Northwestern University, Chicago.