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Robotic Whiskers Generate Tomographic Images

Seals use whiskers to hunt fish in the dark. Similarly, a team of researchers hope their Nitinol whiskers will improve robotic navigation. (Photo credit: Institute of Physics)
Seals use whiskers to hunt fish in the dark. Similarly, a team of researchers hope their Nitinol whiskers will improve robotic navigation. (Photo credit: Institute of Physics)

A new sensor inspired by mammalian whiskers can generate tomographic images measuring fluid flow.

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Illinois’ Advanced Digital Sciences Centre in Singapore were inspired by the way many animals use their whiskers to navigate in the dark.

“When it is dark, whiskers play a key role for animals in exploring, hunting or even just living underground,” explains Cagdas Tuna, a lead author on the paper. “For example, seals can catch fish in the dark by following the hydrodynamic wake using their whiskers.”

Each of the five whiskers in the array are made of a Nitinol wire inside a plastic straw. Gauges at the base of each 15 cm long straw measure the strain on the whisker, and these signals create an image of the fluid flowing past the array.

“There’s no proof that animals do a similar ‘tomographic reconstruction’ in their brains,” continues Tuna. “But this shows great potential to be a useful, if unconventional, sensing system.”

The researchers believe the whisker array could be used alone or in coordination with traditional systems for navigation, tracking or detection in the dark. Going forward, the team hopes to improve the system and make it smaller so that it can be adopted in a broader range of applications.

“This may even find use in biomedical applications, such as cardiac surgery” said Tuna. “A thin-whiskered catheter tip could be used during surgery to track the relative position inside the heart, potentially reducing the risk of injury, or atrial fibrillation.”

The results of their research were published recently in the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.

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