Interested in sensing things without using sight? So are the researchers at the University of Sheffield and Bristol Robotics Laboratory, who have developed the Scratchbot robot that can navigate by waving around a set of 18 whiskers.

To design their sensors, they began by reverse-engineering a rat’s whiskers using high-speed video cameras. After studying how the rat used the whiskers, they developed a mechanical system that was able to perform in a similar manner. The larger whiskers were then outfitted with a magnet and hall effect sensors, which allowed their motion to be observed. Then, instead of developing a traditional software-based motion control system, the researchers developed a neurologically-inspired system that uses an FPGA to simulate how the rat’s brain actually reacts to whisker movement. The result is a robot capable of sensing the world around it using only touch.

As a sight-based organism, I find it humbling that there are so many other ways of navigating the world that do not involve light. In this case, the whiskers on many creatures are sensitive enough to detect subtle textures and patterns in the world around them, and this works well as a replacement for vision in navigation. Cool stuff! [via neatorama]