Drone: sensors inspired by animal whiskers

Lack of light, wind and dust, the narrowness of places. All these phenomena that can disrupt the flight and orientation of miniature flying devices such as drones. To design lightweight and discrete sensors, scientists have decided to draw inspiration from the whiskers of cats.

Researchers from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, presented a  new sensor system at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Montreal. These new sensors, which are inspired by animal vibrios, could offer an economical alternative for robots that have limited computing power.

Many animals have vibriosis in the form of feathers in birds and moustaches in various types of mammals. In cats,  whiskers are composed of long hairs extremely sensitive, not only to the touch but also to the movements of the air. The researchers wanted to reproduce these hairs to allow robots to detect their environment.

A lightweight and inexpensive AC sensor

Many of the research on sensors embedded on robots such as drones are focused around cameras, with increasingly sophisticated algorithms to identify objects on the image. This requires ever-higher computing power, which increases production costs, increases machinery and reduces battery life. Another alternative is the lidar, which works like radar, but emits a laser beam to measure the echo. However, it has disadvantages of weight, size (for small robots in particular) and cost.

”  We are interested in translating the proven usefulness of vibriosis with ground platforms to hovering robots and drones – vibriosis that can capture a low-force contact with the environment in such a way that the robot can manoeuvre to avoid interactions with higher forces. We are motivated by navigating through dark, dusty, smoky, narrow spaces, or windy and turbulent environments with miniature flying devices that can not carry heavier sensors like lidar. 

Objects detected before contact

The researchers created vibriosis, which is simply balls of ABS thermoplastic polymer heated and stretched to take the shape of long fibres like whiskers. They are then glued on 3D printed plates and then attached to force sensors created with encapsulated barometers. According to the researchers, these sensors can easily be mass-produced. A matrix with four vibrioses weighs only 1.5 grams and would cost around 20 US dollars (about 17 euros).

The researchers demonstrated the capabilities of their vibriosis in a video, which shows that they are able to detect forces from 3.33 micro newtons. The sensors are sensitive enough to detect the movement of air well before an object touches them. They can thus measure the speed of the fluid, and therefore the speed of the air, which makes it possible, for example, to estimate the speed of movement of an object or of the apparatus itself, in addition to being a sensor. Proximity. The sensors are so sensitive that the researchers had to make sure they stayed far enough to make their measurements, which were affected by the breath produced by their breathing.