July 11, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

A Rat Race to Build Whiskered Robots

Some scientists at Bristol Robotics Lab are pretty proud of themselves for building a robot with whiskers.  It can seek out and identify objects using its whiskers, just like rats do.  But they should still take their hats off to their living model, because the rat’s technology is far superior.  Science Daily mentioned several facts about rats and their facial sensing devices that achieve some hard-to-duplicate functions:

  • Rats are able to “accurately determine the position, shape and texture of objects using precise rhythmic sweeping movements of their whiskers,”
  • they can “make rapid accurate decisions about objects,” and
  • “then use the information to build environmental maps.”  This implies elaborate processing of the tactile information by the brain (see 01/20/2004, “How and Why Whiskers Whisk”).
  • “Rats have the ability to operate with damaged whiskers,” when on robots, they would have to be replaced.

The University of Bristol posted a short video on YouTube demonstrating the capability of the prototype, nicknamed SCRATCHbot, moving around and responding to touch with its scanning whiskers.  The design of the little robot bears a striking resemblance to the furry variety.
    By trying to imitate this tactile sense that allows rats to gain useful information about their environment in the dark, the robot-makers are envisioning some exciting inventions as they improve on their bewhiskered robot.  Future robots using this technology might be able to rescue people in the dark.  Your vacuum cleaner may one day be able to adapt by touch for optimal cleaning.  Whiskered robots could perform tactile investigation of surfaces.  And the technology “has the potential for a number of further applications from using robots underground, under the sea, or in extremely dusty conditions, where vision is often seriously compromised.
    Even without inventions for humans, the exercise is helpful, the article said.  “By developing these biomimetic robots, we are not just designing novel touch-sensing devices, but also making a real contribution to understanding the biology of tactile sensing.”  If they can ever build one that can make copies of itself, they will really be onto something.

The poor rat.  It has a name that just sounds disgusting.  Remember, though, the rat didn’t get to name itself.  That was humans’ fault.  We shouldn’t feel disgusted about something we named.  The movie Ratatouille helped its reputation a little.  If the rat could choose its own name, maybe it would call itself the Miniature Investigative Genius Harnessing Tactile Yields, Migrating Optimally Utilizing Sensory Excellence – or Mighty Mouse for short.
    The lesson for us is that even the lowliest of beasts has a lot to teach proud man.  Consider how it alters this old joke for the better: “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still just a rat.”  Why, that should rather rate an honor, rationally. 

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