Giving Feeling to Robots & Prosthetics: Researchers at UT Dallas develop artificial touch-sense whiskers

Whiskers are arguably the cutest feature on a dog or cat:

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cutedog1     cutedog2

Need we say more? Those pleasant-looking features are used as touch sensors that send information to an animal’s brain. It’s one way that an animal makes sense of their surroundings. This is why it’s important to not trim Fido’s or Tom’s whiskers. Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas realized this importance and have created artificial whiskers, appropriately called ‘e-whiskers’.

“We’ve created some of the highest density of e-whiskers to date,” said Dr. Walter Voit, an associate professor of materials science engineering and mechanical engineering at UT Dallas. “When you have a lot of sensors like this that can be dragged over a surface, you can then use them to measure many interesting properties. Our e-whiskers were able to detect force, pressure, proximity, temperature, stiffness and topography. As they brush up against—or whisk across—various materials, they mimic the sensing capabilities of human skin.” The development of e-whiskers is a significant step in the advancement of electronic human skin, which could be used in the fields of robotics and even prosthetics.

E-whiskers were developed by using shape-memory polymers that react to heat. A flexible strain sensor, which has the same diameter as a human hair, was attached to the top of a polymer pattern. Researchers then blew hot air through the bottom of the polymer cutouts, thus making the material soft. This allowed the e-whiskers to rise and become 3D. Any disturbance induced changes that interacts with the strain sensor is then tracked, thus giving ‘life’ to the polymer cutouts.

“In robotics, e-whiskers could replicate the functionalities of human skin by determining what’s hard and soft, hot and cold, smooth and rough. They could allow the robot to identify objects and interact with them safely, making robots more ‘human friendly’,” said Jonathan Reeder, lead author who conducted the research.

This concept may seem like something straight out of a sci-fi novel, but it’s not that far off from becoming a reality. “Integrating electronic sensors directly with biology is the most compelling application but presents a set of tough challenges. Namely, how to translate electronic signals generated by the sensor into the ‘language’ of the nervous system, and how to form a stable mechanical and electrical coupling between the flexible electronic and the soft tissue.” Reeder also mentioned that the sensitivity of the e-whiskers, such as changes in topology and temperature, as well as the sensors’ response time, all exceed the capabilities of human skin “by at least an order of magnitude.” “It’s not impossible for a person with a prosthetic to actually have better sensitivity than with the human hand,” Reeder added.

This development offers hope to the 2 million Americans who are living with a prosthetic limb. For more information on this impressive advancement, please click here.

Are you developing a technology so robots and prosthetics can have more human-like qualities? Did you know that you can receive up to 14% back on your research expenses with the R&D Tax Credit? To find out more, please contact a Swanson Reed R&D Specialist today or check out our free online eligibility test.

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