An international team composed of robot designers and brain researchers is looking at nature to develop a new generation of robots with active touch sensing abilities. The BIOTACT ('Biomimetic technology for vibrissal active touch') project is developing whiskered robot rats which might help in rescue or search missions under conditions of restricted visibility, and even for planetary research. As said one of the researchers, 'Today's life-like machines, such as robots, don't make effective use of touch. By learning from nature and developing technologies that do use this physical sense, our researchers will be able to enhance the capabilities of the machines of the future.' But read more...
You can see above an example of what the "robot rat" will look like. (Credit: University of Sheffield) Here is a link to a larger version of this sketch.
And here is one of the first whiskered robots to be designed and built as part of the BIOTACT project. (Credit: University of Sheffield) Here is a link to a larger version of this picture.
But why this focus on rat whiskers? The Weizmann Institute of Science news release says it's because they are much more efficient than that human finger tips. "Whiskers actively sweep back and forth repetitively, accumulating information about its surrounding environment. The sensing begins in the neurons at the whiskers’ bases, which then fire signals off to the brain."
According to this CORDIS article, Touch but don't look, "the EU-funded BIOTACT project, which was launched at the beginning of the year, is supported under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), receiving nearly €5.4 million out of the total project cost of around €7.8 million."
"Overall, our project will bring about a step-change in the understanding of active touch sensing and in the use of whisker-like sensors in intelligent machines," says project coordinator Professor Tony Prescott of University of Sheffield in the UK.
Another active member in this project is Professor Ehud Ahissar of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. "'The aim of this research is to help gain a better understanding of the brain on the one hand, and advance technology on the other. That is to say, researchers can use robots as an experimental tool, by building a brain-like system, step-by-step, gaining insights into the workings of the brain's inside components. With regard to technological applications, we suggest that it is the multiple closed feedback loops that are the key features, giving biological systems an advantage over robotic systems. Therefore, implementing this biological knowledge will hopefully allow robotics researchers to build machines that are more efficient, which can be used in rescue missions, as well as search missions under conditions of restricted visibility.'"
In its own news release, "Robot rat to lead the way in touch technology, the University of Sheffield gives some more details about what these robots will be able to do. "This new technology could have a number of possible applications in modern day society from search and rescue robots that could pick their way through rubble and debris to mine-clearing machines to planetary rovers in space. The technology could also be used closer to home in domestic products, for example vacuum cleaners that could sense textures for optimal cleaning."
For more information, you can visit the BIOTACT project website which states that "they will develop new technologies inspired by the whisker morphology and neural processing systems of two such tactile specialists: the Norwegian rat and the Etruscan shrew."
Sources: Weizmann Institute of Science news release, February 11, 2008; and various websites
You'll find related stories by following the links below.