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Scientists Awarded Grant To Create ’Artificial Rat Whisker’


Scientists at the University of the West of England and the University of Sheffield have won funding to create a robotic system based on the whiskers of a rat.

The system would mimic the biological rat whisker and would provide an entirely new and groundbreaking modality for mobile robots working in confined spaces.

Known as ‘Whiskerbot’ the project will bring together experts in robotics from UWE with experts from Sheffield University who specialise in computer modelling of the brains of mammals.

The project aims to replicate many aspects of the way a rat’s whiskers work – it uses its whiskers to sense the location, closeness, size and texture of nearby objects and surfaces. The rat also sweeps its whiskers back and forth across surfaces and objects to gather information about form and texture. In fact, it could be claimed that whiskers are as important to rats as vision is to humans.

Dr Chris Melhuish who is leading the project for UWE says, “The ‘Whiskerbot’ will be an entirely new design unlike any of the ‘whiskers’ used on robots at the moment and it will have more of the features of the biological rat whisker. The rat’s whisker is like a long fingernail – it has no sensors in it but the whiskers allow the rat to sense its world and derive texture maps of its environment. It is important for the rat in finding its way around since it spends a lot of time in the dark.”

Dr Melhuish says the aim of developing this technology will be to provide mobile robots with a set of ‘whiskers’ like a rat’s which will have the ability to sense their environment: “A key application of this technology will be to provide mobile robots with a sensing ability which will enable them to work in confined spaces such as in narrow pipes or at the site of disasters like earthquakes where dust and smoke may mean poor visibility. These locations are often difficult and dangerous for people. In such environments a robot which could ‘feel its way’ using a rat-like whisker would be extremely useful.”

Robot autonomy is a key area of robot research at the internationally acclaimed Intelligent Autonomous Systems Lab (IAS Lab) at UWE. Chris continues, “The rat’s use of its whiskers may be more energy efficient than vision – and this could be an important factor in designing robots which are autonomous in terms of their energy needs.”

The IAS team will work closely with colleagues at Sheffield University who are experts on how the brain of the rat works. Dr Tony Prescott from the Adaptive Behaviour Research Group (ABRG) at the University of Sheffield says they are looking forward to collaborating on this exciting new project with UWE, “The rats whisker was chosen for the research project because the rat is one of the most studied creatures of the animal kingdom which means there is a great deal of scientific data available. It is crucial for the success of this project that we understand how the rat processes the data it receives through its whiskers, and this means we need an intimate understanding of how the rat’s brain works. This is the area in which the Adaptive Behaviour Research Group at Sheffield University excels and this will be complemented by the expertise of the robotocists at UWE. These two areas will complement each other in developing the artificial rat whisker.”

Jane Kelly | alfa
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