Taking engineering cues from nature has paid off well for the designers of synthetic organisms, which is no surprise given the trial-and-error process of evolution.
But now researchers at the Berkeley Lab have glommed on to one of nature’s most clever creations: the whisker.
As they report:
From the world of nanotechnology we’ve gotten electronic skin, or e-skin, and electronic eye implants or e-eyes. Now we’re on the verge of electronic whiskers. Researchers with Berkeley Lab and the University of California (UC) Berkeley have created tactile sensors from composite films of carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles similar to the highly sensitive whiskers of cats and rats. These new e-whiskers respond to pressure as slight as a single Pascal, about the pressure exerted on a table surface by a dollar bill. Among their many potential applications is giving robots new abilities to “see” and “feel” their surrounding environment.
“Whiskers are hair-like tactile sensors used by certain mammals and insects to monitor wind and navigate around obstacles in tight spaces,” says the leader of this research Ali Javey, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and a UC Berkeley professor of electrical engineering and computer science. “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.”
Not surprisingly, this research was supported by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), so we should not be surprised to soon see their BigDog or Atlas robots sporting a full ZZ Top/Rick Rubin-style beard composed of creepy sensory tendrils.