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Science Nation: Whiskered Robots

6 minutes

(Describer) Streams of light collide to create a globe filled with water. Title: Science Nation.

(Describer) A camera points downward.

(male narrator) The cameras are ready. The infrared lights ready to shine. And the talent ready for her close-up.

(Describer) A rat.

Nearby, robotic devices and robotic parts are scattered about,

(Describer) Columns of pins move side-to-side.

some looking like props from a science fiction movie.

(Describer) One column touches a clay human's face.

But this isn't Hollywood. It's the Hartmann Lab at Northwestern University, just outside Chicago. The science going on here is very real.

(Describer) At a computer...

Do you think this will have some resemblance to the data over there?

(narrator) It's a place where biology and engineering seem to cross paths. It's part of research that originates from one question.

(Describer) Mitra Hartmann:

The big question our laboratory is interested in is how do animals, including humans, manage to gather sensory data from the world and somehow turn that into a perception of the world?

(Describer) She goes to someone at another computer.

Brian, how's it going? It's going well.

(narrator) With some help from the National Science Foundation, Mitra Hartmann and her students are getting a feel for how animals perceive the world around them. The team looks at one of the most powerful sensory systems in nature: the rat whisker system.

(female) Rats use their whiskers similar to the way humans use their hands to explore different objects in the world.

(narrator) High-speed imagery is the best way to capture the motion of whiskers, which can move back and forth up to 25 times a second. Rats cannot see detail with their eyes. They're equipped with two sets of 30 whiskers each that help them sense the world around them. As a rat whisker encounters an object, the object causes the whisker to bend and move. Those movements are sensed by nerves located in a follicle at the whisker's base and are sent to the brain for interpretation.

(female) They can figure out an object's shape, size, orientation, texture. There was one study that suggested that rats are able to do texture discriminations as well as you can do with your fingertip. They're really very sensitive.

(narrator) One thing that Hartmann's team is focusing on is how rats interpret shapes. Biomedical engineering student Blythe Howell uses laser technology to shed new light on how rats' head and whisker movements might change as they explore different shapes. They compare that data with electrical signals from the rat's brain to better understand how they perceive the object they are exploring. Hartmann and her team take what they learn about perception in animals to look at ways they might create artificial perception. That's where these funky robotics come in.

(Describer) The clay head.

This Chia Pet's features are being checked out by a set of artificial wire whiskers, complete with sensors that send information about the forces and movement going across the whisker to a computer.

(female) We can sweep the whisker along the object, and we can extract the object's contour continuously

(Describer) On the computer, tiny blue dots appear on a model of the face.

as we're sweeping the whisker along.

(narrator) Hartmann believes the evolutionary steps her team is taking about perception will lead to some revolutionary technologies. She envisions planetary rovers may one day come complete with a set of whiskers to give precise details about a planet's surface. Or other robots, like bomb detection devices, using whiskers to survey dark areas.

(female) Cameras don't work in the dark unless you have an extra light source. They can be confused by glare, reflections, or fog. You can certainly imagine whiskers being used on an autonomous navigation system to explore the world in a way that cameras couldn't do.

(narrator) She also envisions prosthetic devices, like artificial limbs, that move based on how they sense the world around them. Hartmann admits those breakthroughs are far off. Until then, they are forging a new path of research, discovering what they can about biology to help advance technology.

(Describer) A globe turns beside the title.

For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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The image of a rat sniffing around for food with its little whiskers moving back and forth to help satisfy its appetite is enough to make most people lose theirs. But those whiskers play a valuable role in helping rats determine what is in the environment around them. With support from the National Science Foundation, Mitra Hartmann and colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago are constructing whiskered robots that can detect and then project three-dimensional virtual images of objects on to a computer screen. Scientists here don't think it's so far-fetched that one day robotic rovers, much like the ones on Mars now, might contain a set of whiskers to help them navigate the terrain around them.

Media Details

Runtime: 6 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
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Episode 2
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Episode 3
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Episode 9
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