For all our vaunted advantages — thumbs! giant brains! — the human toolbox sometimes pales in comparison to all of the species-specific hardware out there. For example, whiskers are an extraordinary set of close-range sensing organs that are found not only on the usual suspects of cats and dogs, but on rodents, seals, and even some birds. Whiskers allow their bearers to feel objects around them and orient themselves spatially (as in a tunnel), as well as to detect wind speed and direction.
What humans are really good at, though, is borrowing cool concepts from the natural world for use in robotics. And that is exactly what is happening with whiskers. A team out of the University of Queensland is investigating how to equip small drones with cute-but-functional vibrissae, to provide a low-cost physical sensor for inexpensive robots.
The drone whiskers are made by heating dots of ABS plastic and drawing them out into fine threads. Mounted on force pads, and then on the drone, the whiskers boast a whole range of sensing capabilities to be tested.
“We are interested in translating the proven sensor utility of whiskers on ground platforms to hovering robots and drones— whiskers that can sense low-force contact with the environment such that the robot can maneuver to avoid more dangerous, high-force interactions. We are motivated by the task of navigating through dark, dusty, smoky, cramped spaces, or gusty, turbulent environments with micro-scale aircraft that cannot mount heavier sensors such as lidars.”
Though they are not as accurate in long-distance sensing as lidar or cameras, plastic whiskers are cheap. Their use in small, light drones that may be sent into situations they’re not going to come out of in one piece is a perfect match of form and function. I for one welcome our new adorable robot overlords — as do Jill and Samson, the original whisker-havers!