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Next Generation Robotic Whiskers Promise New Capabilities, More Cuteness

Researchers create electronic whiskers made of nanoparticles

2 min read
Next Generation Robotic Whiskers Promise New Capabilities, More Cuteness
Image: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Robots have been relying on whiskers, of a sort, for a very long time. In a general sense, a whisker is simply a switch attached to some sort of sticky-outy thing, such that when the sticky-outy thing encounters an obstacle, it transmits that encounter to the switch, warning the robot that it's about to run into said obstacle. These sorts of primitive whiskers are like infrared or sonar obstacle detectors, except cheaper, simpler, and (depending on the application) more robust.

The current generation of robotic whiskers are much more directly inspired by biology: specifically, they're intended to provide a reliable method of sensing in very dark, very cluttered environments. A few years ago, we met a robot from the Bristol Robotics Lab that featured a mobile whisker array modeled on the Etruscan pygmy shrew, which is able to not only detect objects, but also able to analyze their shape and texture through touch alone. This is an impressive capability, although it requires an impressive amount of hardware (cute hardware, to be fair) to get it to work. The downside of this is that implementing intelligent whiskers like these turns into a project that defines the robots, as opposed to just another sensing system that can be added to increase the robot's adaptability and versatility.

So what about the next generation, then? Last week, researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley went nanoscale, with a design for electronic whiskers that are far smaller (and about 10 times more sensitive) than ever before. The researchers say the sensor could "enable a wide range of applications in advanced robotics and human–machine interfacing." And perhaps to illustrate the potential cuteness factor of robotic whiskers, they created the image you see at the top of this post, showing their device next to its natural counterpart (i.e. real cat whiskers). 

The first thing you'll notice about these e-whiskers is that they're tiny. And part of the reason that they're tiny (perhaps this is the second thing you noticed) is that the mechanical infrastructure required to support them is minimal. This is because the whiskers themselves are made of tunable composite films of carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles, patterned onto elastic fibers, that form their own strain sensors, allowing deformation to be measured by changes in voltage. The e-whiskers can sense changes in pressure down to about one single Pascal, which is about the equivalent of the pressure that a dollar bill puts on a surface that it's resting on.

Such high sensitivity (along with high dynamic range) means that the e-whiskers can be used for much more than just obstacle detection. The example above shows them sensing three-dimensional gas flow, which means that they'd be just fine at sensing wind speed and direction outside, but really the key here is that these things are small, lightweight, tunable, and easy and cheap to manufacture to the point where it's worth wondering why (at some point in the near future) you wouldn't want to just cover your robot entirely in whiskers.

[ PNAS ] via [ LBL ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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