The world of robotics is advancing at break-neck speed these days, with researchers working on robots that are more mobile, more intelligent and, increasingly, more tuned in to their environments through advanced sensors and other technology. And, like many other advancements, the newest one is inspired by the animal kingdom.
Researchers at Berkeley Lab and the University of California Berkeley have created tactile sensors from composite films of carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles. The result is similar to the highly sensitive whiskers of cats and rats, according to R&D Magazine. Their extreme sensitivity enables the e-whiskers to detect pressure as slight as a single Pascal – “about the pressure exerted on a table surface by a dollar bill” – which helps them to, in essence, “feel.”
“Whiskers are hair-like tactile sensors used by certain mammals and insects to monitor wind and navigate around obstacles in tight spaces,” said the leader of the research, Ali Javey, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and a UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “Our electronic whiskers consist of high-aspect-ratio elastic fibers coated with conductive composite films of nanotubes and nanoparticles. In tests, these whiskers were 10 times more sensitive to pressure than all previously reported capacitive or resistive pressure sensors.”
Javey hopes to eventually develop e-whiskers that could spatially map nearby objects and even be used as wearable sensors for measuring human heartbeat and pulse. The implications for "helper" robots and other human-robot interactions would be incredible.