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Engineers develop "e-whiskers" that could give robots the ability to "see" and "feel" their environment.

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Lisa Winter

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clockJan 22 2014, 21:06 UTC
257 Engineers develop "e-whiskers" that could give robots the ability to "see" and "feel" their environment.
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Many animals use whiskers to help sense their environment. The extremely sensitive tactile hairs can give information about the weather and can help the animal navigate its surroundings in low visibility. Now, scientists have revealed a prototype for electronic whiskers which could be widely used for human-machine interfaces and with next-generation robots, among many others. The ongoing research is being led by Materials Science professor Ali Javey from UC Berkeley and the paper was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The electronic whiskers are extremely sensitive and can detect even a single pascal of pressure, which is about as much pressure as a single dollar bill puts on a table. To test the practicality of the whiskers, the researchers generated high quality two- and three-dimensional maps of wind flow, created in real time. On a larger scale, this could help environmental scientists monitor weather. 

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The whiskers are made of a combination of carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles, which are applied to high-aspect-ratio elastic fibers. These materials make the e-whiskers quite flexible and were shown to be about ten times more sensitive than previously released mechanical whiskers. Javey states that the e-whiskers are actually quite easy to manufacture, which will help with keeping costs low. 

In the future, the team plans to integrate these whiskers into robots in order to allow the machines to gather more information about their surroundings. Because they are lightweight, flexible, and incredibly sensitive, they would make a perfect addition to the next generation of smart robots. As the robots move around, signals from the whiskers help generate a more complete view of the environment. 

Additionally, these whiskers could aid in the development of human-machine interfaces for biomedical applications. The team has speculated that the whiskers could be modified into a wearable sensor in order to continually monitor heart rate and strength of pulse. 

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Javey’s lab also works extensively with electronic skin, which is also meant to interact with the environment. In 2013, the lab announced the production of a thin e-skin that was able to light up in response to pressure. This skin has many applications, including the ability for robots to hold delicate objects like an egg securely, without crushing them.


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