Science Scope

Video: A robot that uses whiskers to get around

Video: A robot that uses whiskers to get around

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It's not easy to train a robot to "see" like a human. But is there another way to accomplish that task? Enter the whiskered Shrewbot.

Just as beards have been in vogue among male homo sapiens in the past several years, it looks like whiskers are a new trend among robots.

Most robots are built to "see" their way around the world, and some even use smell to get around. But several new robots, such as the Shrewbot, feature whiskers that can touch nearby objects to send information back for navigation purposes.

The Shrewbot was developed by Bristol Robotics Laboratory and University of Sheffield Active Touch Laboratory. One of the lead developers, University of Sheffield professor Tony Prescott, says:

When the whiskers touch an object, this causes them to vibrate and the vibration pattern is picked up by sensitive cells in the hair follicle at the base of the whisker. These patterns are turned into an electrical signal which is sent to the brain, enabling the mammal to make instant decisions about its environment to help it move around or catch prey.

The Shrewbot is named after the Etruscan shrew, one of the world's smallest mammals, which has whiskers that are the same size as its body, which is normally about one-and-a-half inches long. The Shrewbot's robotic predecessor was Scratchbot.

The whisker technology could be especially useful in dark, dangerous or smoke-filled environments -- just the sorts of places that we might not be willing to send people, but which robots could easily scope out for us.

Sounds like a good idea. Then again, perhaps it doesn't make sense for a robot to "see" only when it's close enough to touch an obstacle. See what you think in the below video, in which Shrewbot shrinks as it runs into things:

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photo: screenshot

via: University of Bristol, Environmental News Network

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure