New sensing technology for autonomous devices

The search to find ways for autonomous devices to sense their surroundings has produced some novel projects, however a recent project from the University of Queensland has returned to the animal kingdom for a solution.

Just as animals sense their surroundings with whiskers, Dr Pauline Pounds developed hairs that extend from a drone or robot to determine the nature of their immediate surroundings.

The sensors that Pounds and her team developed can detect minute forces such as the motion of air, or changes to the atmosphere. The sensors have been tested to detect human breathing from half a metre away.

The whisker-like detectors are made from the same plastic material that 3D printer extruders use. The sensors are then attached to force-transmitting plates that are affixed to a miniature tripod of pressure sensors, and can detect loads on the tip of the hair down to 0.33 milligrams.

“Whether it’s a humanoid teaching robot in the classroom or hovering drones in flight, being able to sense interactions before contact is important,” said Pounds.

Other potential applications for the technology could be for drones to travel through difficult environments such as dark, dusty, smoky, or cramped spaces, as well as gusty, turbulent environments.

What makes the technology more attractive so far is their simplicity and low cost, with the total cost coming to $30.

This low cost does not limit the device’s sensitivity.

“They can be used to measure fluid velocity, as well as to detect the bow-wave of oncoming air of an approaching object before it actually touches the whiskers,” Dr Pounds said.

“You can use the whiskers anywhere you want to measure force, like in machining applications, in industrial fabrication, in medicine, in marine systems, in aerospace – the possibilities are endless.”

So far, the sensors have been trialled in an environment with similarly equipped rodents, to see how rats react to visitors.