A team of scientists have developed a robot rat that can seek out and identify objects using its whiskers.
Researchers from the Bristol Robotics Lab (BRL), (a partnership between Bristol University and the University of the West of England) and Sheffield University developed the SCRATCHbot as part of the pan-European ICEA project to develop biologically-inspired artificial intelligence systems.
The system was inspired by the use of touch in the animal kingdom. In nocturnal creatures, or those that inhabit poorly-lit places, this physical sense is widely preferred to vision as a primary means of discovering the world.
Rats are especially effective at exploring their environments using their whiskers. They are able to accurately determine the position, shape and texture of objects using precise rhythmic sweeping movements of their whiskers, make rapid accurate decisions about objects, and then use the information to build environmental maps.
Robot designs often rely on vision to identify objects, but this new technology relies solely on touch technology, enabling the robot to function in spaces such as dark or smoke-filled rooms, where vision cannot be used.
Dr Tony Pipe, in the BRL, said: ‘Rats have the ability to operate with damaged whiskers and in theory broken whiskers on robots could be easily replaced, without affecting the whole robot.’
The SCRATCHbot (Spatial Cognition and Representation through Active TouCh) has been developed with funding from the European Union Framework 6 programme as part of a €6.5m (£5.6m) ICEA (Integrating Cognition Emotion and Autonomy) project (http://www.iceaproject.eu/).
Future development of robotic touch technologies by Sheffield, Bristol Robotics and international partners, will carry on through the BIOTACT (BIOmimetic Technology for vibrissal ACtive Touch) project, funded by the EU Framework 7 Future Emerging Technologies programme (FET).