E-whiskers: Will human technology finally catch up with cats?

Researchers have developed a set of  'e-whiskers,' highly sensitive tactile hairs that could someday help robots navigate tight spaces. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman / CSM
A cat's whiskers help them decide whether spaces are big enought to crawl through.

Equipped with whiskers, robots could soon get a better sense of their surroundings. 

Researchers with Berkeley Lab and the University of California (UC) Berkeley developed electronic whiskers from composite films of carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles, according to a press release from the Berkeley Lab.

The carbon nanotube paste serves as an electrically conductive network matrix that can bend. To make the medium highly sensitive to pressure or any mechanical strain, a thin film of silver was loaded on it. As a result, the e-whiskers respond to a very small amount of pressure – as slight as a single Pascal, about the same pressure exerted on a table surface by a dollar bill, according to the press release.

"The strain sensitivity and electrical resistivity of our composite film is readily tuned by changing the composition ratio of the carbon nanotubes and the silver nano particles,"  said Ali Javey, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, who led the research."The composite can then be painted or printed onto high-aspect-ratio elastic fibers to form e-whiskers that can be integrated with different user-interactive systems."

The research group successfully used the electronic whiskers to demonstrate two- and three-dimensional mapping of wind flow.

Tactile hairs can be found throughout the animal kingdom. In cats, for example – whiskers help cats move around easily and gauge, as well as understand, their surroundings. Some animals also use them to monitor wind and navigate around obstacles in tight spaces, said Dr. Javey, who is also a  professor of electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley

The e-whiskers come with a "highly responsive tactile sensor networks for real time monitoring of environmental effects," he said. 

The findings have a wide range of applications for advanced robotics, human-machine user interfaces, and biological applications, said Javey.

A paper on the research findings, titled “Highly sensitive electronic whiskers based on patterned carbon nanotube and silver nanoparticle composite films," was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.The research was supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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