BIOmimetic Technology for vibrissal ACtive Touch (2009-2011)

Shrewbot in action

While vision supplies information about distant objects, touch is invaluable in sensing the nearby environment.

However, in designing intelligent, life-like machines, such as robots, the touch modality has been largely overlooked. Current systems make only limited use of tactile sensors for simple tasks such as detecting physical contact.

Biology, by contrast, reveals an abundant use of tactile sensing in the animal kingdom. Indeed, in nocturnal creatures, or those that inhabit poorly-lit places, touch is widely preferred to vision as a primary means of discovering the world. The tactile senses of many mammals are built around arrays of facial hairs known as "whiskers" or "vibrissae".

Active touch sensing

In this project we will develop new technologies inspired by the whisker morphology and neural processing systems of two such tactile specialists: the Norwegian rat and the Etruscan shrew. These animals sweep their whiskers back and forth at high speeds in a controlled and feedback-sensitive manner. This "active touch" capacity allows them to:

  1. maximise their intake of useful information
  2. solve perceptual tasks such as determining the position, shape, and surface texture of encountered objects
  3. encode tactile memories that allow recognition of familiar items and
  4. track and capture prey animals using touch signals alone.

Using our understanding of these natural vibrissal systems we will develop two biomimetic artefacts endowed with similar sensing capabilities: a novel active tactile sensing array, termed a BIOTACT sensor, which will be mounted on a robot manipulator arm and incorporate a large number of whisker-like sensing elements and an autonomous whiskered robot that can seek-out, identify, and track fast-moving target objects.

Project goal

Overall, our project will bring about a step- change in the understanding of active touch sensing and in the use of whisker-like sensors in intelligent machines. BRL is a partner in the BIOTACT consortium and is responsible for the majority of the robotics aspects of the project.

Back to Biomimetic and neuro-robotics

Theme Leader

Further information

BIOTACT project website

The robot manipulator arm was designed and built by Elumotion Ltd.

Shrewbot video

Shrewbot video filmed for UWE YouTube channel

Page last updated 12 May 2016