Video | Thursday, 8th August 2019

Animal whiskers inspire the next generation of robots

Whisker research could allow robots to explore undiscovered areas

High-speed videos of small mammals’ whiskers could be the key to creating the next generation of robots.

Animal specialist Dr Robyn Grant has been uncovering the hidden world of how animals use their whiskers to explore, find their way in the dark and locate prey.

Through her understanding of whiskers’ role in accurately sensing an animal’s environment  –  moving as fast as 25 times per second – Dr Grant will help translate millions of years of evolution to create a ‘tactile robot’.

Working with Nathan Lepora, Professor of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence at Bristol Robotics Lab, the scientists have created the TacTip – a robot sensor that 3D-printed whiskers can be attached to in order to give precise knowledge of its surroundings.

The project could allow robots to go into undiscovered areas, such as space, under water, or down holes without the need for big lights or cameras and all explored through touch.

The robot could be then used to explore inaccessible environments or help in rescue operations involving confined spaces.


Dr Grant said: “Whiskers are tactile sensors which can move as fast as 25 times per second, making contact with the surfaces in real-world environments for only a few milliseconds, but guide small mammals perfectly through different environments.

 “Noisy signals from the whiskers are processed by the brain to give the animal detailed information about surface form and texture to make decisions, which is exactly what we want to replicate.”

Over many years, Dr Grant has monitored and recorded small mammals, such as rats and dormice, and their whisker movements using infrared technology and high-speed video cameras.

 The videos, which capture the animal movements at 500 frames per second, are used to show us how animals move their whiskers. Two-dimensional and 3D imaging has also captured a range of whisker shapes and textures in different mammals.

 The scientists have analysed their movements as well as the natural wear and tear of each type of whisker to gain a basic understanding of how different animals move and position their whisker to navigate, explore and survive.

The results will inform scientists of the best performing whiskers to give recommendations for artificial whisker sensors, which will soon be 3D printed for trialling on tactile robot platforms at Bristol Robotics Lab.

 Dr Grant added: “This new innovation of technology is really important because it allows us to give robots a robust sense of touch. This will enable robots to navigate and control complex behaviours

Next, Dr Grant plans to extend the research to include aquatic animals, such as water voles, seals, walrus, sea lions and otters, to explore the possibility of the TacTip robot sensor in terrestrial and aquatic settings.

 This work is part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Modelling the Mechanics of Animal Whiskers project, in collaboration with London South Bank University and the University of Central London, and has received funding from the Friction Innovation Fund in collaboration with Bristol Robotics Lab.

More videos