Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia are developing a whisker-based sensing system that they hope could help small drones avoid obstacles and collisions during flight.
Mimicking nature is always a smart thing to do when possible, and whiskers are to be found in numerous species across the animal kingdom, helping them navigate through dark and narrow passings.
This new artificial whisker array unit weighs only 1.6 grams, so it won’t burden little drones by a lot of additional mass. Each of its elements features a sensitivity of 0.088 mN, which is theoretically enough to enable the sensing of air pressure changes that indicate the presence of a nearby object. This will allow the drone to figure out that something is close and change direction before it makes contact.
The cost of the unit is set at about $20 right now, which is significant. The team of the researchers utilizes 3D printers to materialize the load plate, while the whiskers themselves are made out of ABS plastic blobs. The elements are glued onto the plate and are attached to force sensing pads. The unit can measure across a wide range of values, so it’s suitable for flow measurements, contact affirmation, and obstacle avoidance.
Of course, the scientists have only developed the whisker unit for now, so there is a lot of actual testing on real drones left to be done. However, the first prototype testing sessions are very encouraging, and the engineers are confident that their arrays will enable small drones to do things that were previously considered impossible, navigating in cramped places even without the help of a remote pilot or any lights whatsoever.