Robot design inspired by shrew’s whiskers

24 January 2012

The Etruscan shrew was the inspiration for an innovative new robot, which uses sophisticated whiskers to ‘feel’ its way around. The Shrewbot is the latest in a series of robots which use ‘active touch’ rather than vision to navigate its environment.

Developed at Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) in collaboration with the University of Sheffield Active Touch Laboratory as part of the BIOTACT project, Professor Tony Pipe (UWE Bristol) and Professor Tony Prescott (University of Sheffield) are working on the project with a number of partners. BRL is a collaboration between UWE Bristol and the University of Bristol.

To date, it has been vision that has been most extensively studied in terms of how it could be used for autonomous robots. However, there are numerous examples in nature, particularly in nocturnal creatures, where ‘active touch’ plays a primary role in how the animal finds its way around and how it behaves.

The shrew sweeps its whiskers back and forth at high speeds picking up vibrations which allows it to gather information from the environment such as the location, shape and texture of objects. It then stores this information in its memory.

Commenting on the introduction of the Shrewbot, Professor Tony Prescott, said: “When the whiskers touch an object this causes them to vibrate and the vibration pattern is picked up by sensitive cells in the hair follicle at the base of the whisker. These patterns are turned into an electrical signal which is sent to the brain, enabling the mammal to make instant decisions about its environment to help it move around or catch prey. The whiskers have another advantage over some other forms of tactile touch. They are easily replaceable, as the sensory cells are at the base of the whisker, not the top.”

Man-made whiskers have been developed which can move separately and are mounted on a mobile robot, mimicing the capability of the shrew by capturing information in the robot’s environment and allowing it to make decisions about how to move in a particular environment.

Professor Tony Pipe explains, “There are real advantages to this form of tactile sensing for robots that we are just beginning to understand. For example, this technology could have applications in dark, dangerous or smoke filled environments which are unsafe for humans, where in future we might want robots to go. Overall, this project has taken us to a new level in our understanding of active touch sensing and in the use of whisker-like sensors in intelligent machines.”

BRL is a partner in the BIOTACT consortium and, together with the University of Sheffield, is responsible for the majority of the robotics aspects of the project. BIOTACT is a four-year research project funded by the Seventh Research Programme (FP7) of the European Union and involves nine research groups in 7 countries.

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