Robots fitted with whiskers to help machines move more smoothly

The ability of rats, cats and mice to move quietly and sense their environment using their whiskers has inspired new devices for robots.

Australian engineers are making what they call “artificial whiskers” for workplace and home robots, which improve the devices’ ability to sense and move around objects.

“Every space is different, so giving robots effective tactile sensor systems to map their tasks and ‘visualise’ movement in their range will advance their abilities,” says Simon Pegoli, a PhD candidate at Flinders University, and lead author on a paper published in Sensors and Actuators A: Physical.

Two people smiling at camera, one holding long white whiskers and one holding toy rat robot
Dr Russell Brinkworth and Simon Pegoli with electromechanical whisker models. Credit: Flinders University

These bio-inspired, 3D-printed whiskers would be cheap and flexible ways to complement robots’ light-based navigation.

They could also help robots learn more about the flexibility and moveability of objects they encounter.

The researchers used a technique called “mechanical beam theory” to develop an optimal shape for their robot whiskers.

“We’ll continue to put these electro-mechanical ‘whisker’ prototypes to the test in problematic scenarios so the robot’s operating system will eventually know how to respond to the information they gather,” says Pegoli.

Dr Russell Brinkworth, an associate professor in autonomous systems at Flinders University, says that the whiskers could be fitted to robots cheaply.

“We would like to see these whiskers function in a way similar to how our fingertips can assess the weight, shape and kind of object before us,” says Brinkworth.

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