Another Ratbot, This One with Bigger Whiskers

Encountering a swarm of genuine sewer-dwelling rats would send the average human screaming and jumping up onto the nearest chair, but there's nothing to fear -- and everything to admire -- about the latest plague of ratbots being developed in robotics labs around the world.

First came Psikharpax, the French ratbot with the fancy literary name, whose sensors simulated the function of three senses: vision, hearing, and touch. Now comes the less jazzily named SCRATCHbot (Spatial Cognition and Representation through Active TouCh) from England, who focuses only on the sense of touch.

In nocturnal creatures like rats, touch trumps vision as a primary means of exploring the world. Hence, whiskers are the key to this new ratbot. Professor Tony Prescott, from the University of Sheffield's Department of Psychology teamed up with the Bristol Robotics Lab to design a blind-but-be-whiskered ratbot that sweeps its environment with a frightful, rhythmic flapping of its whiskers in order to suss out the the position, shape and texture of objects it encounters.

Eventually, the ratbot will be able to use the data it collects to build maps of the terrain. This purely touch-driven technology will enable the ratbot to navigate in spaces such as dark or smoke-filled rooms, and can be applied to emergency rescues or underground or undersea exploration.

If the touchy-feely technology really takes off, the researchers hope it will be used for more sensitive touching jobs, like inspecting surfaces for the textile industry, or sensing textures for optimal vacuum cleaning.

These artificial touch technologies will also help researchers understand how the brain controls the movement of the sensory systems. "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," said Professor Prescott.