Robot whiskers feel like rats, according to reports in ScienceNOW and Nature, vol. 443, p525, 5 October 2006. Rats can deliberately rotate their whiskers over objects as they explore their environment, and experiments with rats have shown that they can distinguish shapes and textures of objects as their whiskers sweep across them.

Engineers Joseph Solomon and Mitra Hartmann at Northwestern University, Illinois have built a device that uses whiskers to distinguish the shape and contours of objects it comes in contact with. The engineers proposed that rats detect the amount of torque (rotational force) in two dimensions at the base of the whisker when it encounters a surface. The amount of torque depends on the force at the point of contact and how far the encountered surface is from the base of the whisker. As the whisker repeatedly sweeps over an object, changes in torque can be used by mathematical model to calculate distances between the base of the whisker and object's surface. To test their model the researchers built a device with four whiskers attached to strain gauges at their bases. They then made the whiskers sweep over an object that had complex contours to see if the information collected from the whiskers could be used to map out the shape of the object. It worked, and the engineers hope to develop their system for use on exploration robots to monitor the terrain they are passing over.

Editorial Comment: The process of building this device began with observations of real rat whiskers and involved intelligent understanding of physics, engineering and computer modelling. If engineers eventually design a "rat robot" that can Use whiskers to help it monitor its surroundings, no-one will pretend that it evolved by chance. Therefore, it is deliberately ignorant to believe that the rat's whiskers and brain evolved by chance. (Ref. robotics, biomimetics, bio-engineering)

Evidence News 5 December 2006


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