Electronic Whiskers Could Help Robots Sense Their Surroundings

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Robot lovers, rejoice: The world is one step closer to “robocat.” Many mammals use special hairs on their faces to feel for unseen objects. Researchers realized artificial whiskers could help robots sense the world around them, but until now, attempts at whiskerlike sensors have been bulky and inefficient. Using cutting-edge materials, a team of researchers has now developed electronic whiskers with a sensitivity and size mimicking their natural counterparts. The team coated flexible strands of silicon rubber with a mix of long chains of carbon atoms, called carbon nanotubes, and tiny bunches of silver molecules, called silver nanoparticles. The carbon nanotubes added flexibility and durability while the silver nanoparticles added a way to measure small changes in strain on the whiskers. As each whisker flexes, the electrical resistance inside changes. By running a current through the whisker, the researchers measured the change in resistance and, therefore, the amount of flex. This design proved 10 times more sensitive than previous efforts, with each whisker capable of detecting the pressure equivalent of a dollar bill resting on a table, the researchers report online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team says its techniques could one day help engineers create better wearable electronics, such as flexible heart monitors, and better sensors for robots. Until then it might be worth brainstorming names for your robotic kitty.

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