Robotics engineers are always trying to find better ways to help robots navigate their surroundings. Their latest inspiration comes from cat whiskers, which in turn have inspired robotic feelers. According to Wired:
Thin, prong-like sensors are formed from high-aspect elastic fibres painted with composite films of carbon nanotubes and silver nanoparticles. The nanotubes form a bendable conductive network and the nanoparticles make the whiskers sensitive to mechanical strain. The “e-whiskers” are then able to respond to levels of pressure similar to that of placing a bank note upon a table.
The “e-whiskers” are also capable of sensing wind movement. The lead author on the paper explains, “In tests, these whiskers were ten times more sensitive to pressure than all previously reported capacitive or resistive pressure sensors.” A paper on the “e-whiskers,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explains their utility:
Functionalities mimicking biological systems are of tremendous interest in developing smart and user-interactive electronics. For example, artificial electronic skin (e-skin) and electronic eye (e-eye) have been developed recently by engineering novel material and device concepts on thin flexible substrates that give ordinary objects and surfaces the ability to feel and see the environment. Whiskers present yet another important class of sensor components that can monitor the airflow, mediate tactile sensing for spatial mapping of nearby objects, and even enable balance during motion for advanced robotics with capabilities resembling those found in certain insects and mammals.
(Takei, “Highly sensitive electronic whiskers based on patterned carbon nanotube and silver nanoparticle composite films,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA (2014) (internal citations removed).)
Amazingly, in both the news stories and the PNAS paper I found no statement praising the power of nature to evolve systems that perform so well that we base our technology on them. Nonetheless, please repeat after me: “Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”