E-whiskers: Very Sensitive Sensor for Versatile Robots

Thank to nature, the robots are able to sense in extreme conditions using electronic whiskers. The new system that improves the ability of robots to sense is used in nature by certain mammals and insects for navigation and monitoring the environment conditions.

I chose to write about this new technology because I’m convinced that it could work in different areas and can be used widely among robots engineered for adaptability and versatility.

The manipulation of matter at the atomic scale is a trend that brought over the years technologies such as electronic skin or electronic eye. The same nanotech process is used to build the electronic whiskers that interface with the environment and collect a series of information even in zero visibility.

E-whiskers (image source)

The entire system is based on sensitive flexible electronic whiskers, who once came into contact with an ‘obstacle’ like the blow of the wind, transmit a warning signal to robot once it feel movement.

The flexibility of the electronic whiskers is the key to interface with the environment in a safety way. Half of a sphere to cover as much a larger area attaches all these flexible electronic whiskers.

Table of Contents

The team

The complementary sensor system was designed and built by researchers from the Berkeley Lab and the University of California (UC) Berkeley. They were inspired by cats and rats, and mimic the whiskers properties of cats and rats to build very sensitive tactile sensors from composite films of carbon nanotubes along with silver nanoparticles.

How it Works

The array of the flexible elastic fibers allows deformation that produces changes in voltage. Each of the electronic whiskers can sense a pressure down to about one single Pascal, which is about the same pressure exerted by a piece of paper on a flat surface.

All these highly sensitive properties are due to nanotechnology used to build carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticle composite films.

Compared with other capacitive or resistive pressure sensors, the e-whiskers have a resistivity of the composites more than 10 times greater, which is a notable property.

Changing the composition ratio of the carbon nanotubes and the silver nanoparticles, the researchers have obtained different values for strain sensitivity and electrical resistivity, which means that the e-whiskers can be explored with excellent performance in a wide range of user-interactive systems.

The sensitive whiskers can be easily fabricated, even if the nanotechnology still missing widely.

Area of use

The impossible could become possible using a different approach and advanced technologies. In this area enters the electronic whiskers that are fabricated for a wide range of robots that works for example in rescue missions in case of fire, generally in missions where visibility is almost zero.

In a demonstration, the researchers use the sensor to create in real-time a 2D and 3D gas-flow map of wind flow, which can be translated as a mapping system that sense the wind speed and direction.

When the visibility is greatly affected, basic robot vision with cameras and other sensors becomes almost useless. This new type of highly responsive tactile sensors is the solution where current technologies fail.


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