Researchers develop artificial whiskers to provide extra sense

By Caeli Cleary

Most mammals, like dogs, cats and seals use their whiskers to aid their vision, especially in the dark. Animal whiskers — primarily seal whiskers — inspired University researchers and researchers at the Advanced Digital Sciences Center, ADSC, to create artificial whiskers that could serve as an alternative, or additional, sensory system for surgeons.

Robo-whiskers is a sensing device that “collects measurements with multiple whiskers from different directions to produce tomographic images of the fluid-flow,” said Cagdas Tuna, a postdoctoral researcher at ADSC.

The artificial whiskers could be beneficial to doctors while performing surgery because of the extra sense it gives them. It provides additional information by giving doctors the ability “to image the sensation of touch as a result of the contact of the whiskers,” said Farzad Kamalabadi, professor in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a researcher in the Coordinated Science Laboratory.

For example, instead of doing an open-heart surgery, which increases risk for infection, Tuna said doctors can perform keyhole surgery using the artificial whiskers.

“Using a thin whiskered catheter tip for this procedure may provide the tactile feedback as good as in an open surgery using hands, tracking the catheter position inside the heart precisely but with reduced risk of injury or infection,” he said.

Kamalabadi said the device could best be applied in a surgical area where a doctor would need an extra sense.

“There may be multiple applications, but one of the more immediate applications would allow you to develop this extra sense in the form of images that you build in areas where you don’t have access to either photometric vision — the ability to image something — or you can’t use other modes of sensing, for example in a murky area under water,” he said.

Tuna said they are now working on an advanced model of the artificial whiskers to increase the device’s sensing capabilities.

“In this study, we have only considered passive sensing, but animals extensively use active sensing, meaning that they are responsive to their environment,” Cagdas said. “I believe if we can mimic some of these strategies animals use to survive in their environment, we can actually further increase the sensing capabilities of the whiskery system.”

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