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E-Whiskers Can Give Robots and Spacecraft Enhanced Feeling and Seeing Senses


Scientists have applied to robots cat whiskers able to detect pressure akin to paper landing on a hard surface, enhancing their seeing and feeling senses.

According to a news release, the new nanotechnology is on par with creations like electronic skin and electronic eye implants. UC Berkley researchers used composite films of carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles to create the whiskers similar to those of cats and mice.

"Whiskers are hair-like tactile sensors used by certain mammals and insects to monitor wind and navigate around obstacles in tight spaces," lead researcher Ali Javey, a UC Berkeley electrical engineering and computer science professor. "Our electronic whiskers consist of high-aspect-ratio elastic fibers coated with conductive composite films of nanotubes and nanoparticles. In tests, these whiskers were 10 times more sensitive to pressure than all previously reported capacitive or resistive pressure sensors."

Javey and his research colleagues have also created nanotechnology like e-skin and other flexible sensory devices. For their project, the researchers "used a carbon nanotube paste to form an electrically conductive network matrix with excellent bendability. To this carbon nanotube matrix they loaded a thin film of silver nanoparticles that endowed the matrix with high sensitivity to mechanical strain," according to the release.

The study was accepted by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"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 nanoparticles," Javey said. "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."

He said the team was able to precisely map wind flow in 3-D and 2-D as a proof-of-concept. Other uses for the nanotechnology could be in space for probes to map nearby objects or even for a person on Earth to measure their heart rate.

"Our e-whiskers represent a new type of highly responsive tactile sensor networks for real time monitoring of environmental effects," Javey said. "The ease of fabrication, light weight and excellent performance of our e-whiskers should have a wide range of applications for advanced robotics, human-machine user interfaces, and biological applications."

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