Animals’ whiskers may just look like fancy mustaches, but these long, stiff hairs serve an important purpose. Cats, rats, seals, and other critters rely on them to sense their surroundings. These super-sensitive feelers work so well, scientists have copied the idea.
A team of scientists in California created their own electronic whiskers (e-whiskers for short). They’re made from flexible fibers instead of hairs. They hope the invention could help robots and other devices better interact with the world around them.
How do whiskers work? Let’s say something triggers an animal’s whiskers. In a flash, thousands of nerves at their whiskers’ bases send signals to the brain. The brain uses the information to map the animal's surroundings.
Much like the way people use their fingertips, whiskers help animals explore their environment through touch. For example, a cat’s whiskers can detect small changes in the way air moves around furniture. This helps the feline move through rooms at night without bumping into anything.
Rats also spend a lot of time scurrying in dark places. Whiskers help them feel their way around in the pitch black. As they move, rats brush the tips of their whiskers across objects. They can tell whether a surface is smooth, bumpy, hard, or soft. Whiskers can even help them find a hidden hole to crawl through.
Seals have whiskers too. They sense ripples in the water made by swimming fish. That tells them the fish’s size, shape, and the direction it’s going. As a result, they can chase down the biggest and tastiest meals.
E-whiskers work in a similar way to an animals’ whiskers. Their fibers are coated with nanotubes. These tiny, tube-shaped structures are too small to see without a microscope. They allow e-whiskers to both bend and carry electricity. Anything pushing against the whiskers creates an electric signal that sends data to a computer.
Scientists tested their artificial whiskers by letting air flow over them. The e-whiskers were sensitive enough to form a 3-D picture of the moving air.
The team thinks that in the future, e-whiskers could help machines monitor the environment. They could even help doctors more accurately measure patients’ heartbeat and pulse rate.