The rat's whiskers! NSF-funded research may aid heart patients


A rat finding its way in the dark. A seal detecting the path of a fish. A naked mole rat finding food. These are examples of animals using their whiskers to survive.

Douglas L. Jones
Douglas L. Jones

Inspired by instances like these found in nature, CSL researcher Douglas L. Jones and his collaborators, Principal Investigator Chang Liu and Professors Mitra Hartmann and Alan Kadish, all of Northwestern University, are engineering a multi-modal sensing “skin.”

The project is funded through the National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation (EFRI) program. The four-year grant totals $620,000.

The researchers hope to create an artificial skin with whiskers attached for further sensing abilities. The whiskers would be used to send information about how close the skin is to an upcoming object and how to properly react.

This type of function is necessary for performing precise actions. For example, if a robotic arm wanted to pick up an egg and move it, the arm has to grip the egg tight enough to hold it, but loose enough not to crush it. If the robot had whiskers coming off the edges, the robot could sense how near the egg was before it got there and make the proper adjustments.

“We want to build a multi-modal sensor that can do several different types of sensing, the same way our skin can,” said Jones, a professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The basis for the whisker technique comes from nature. When rats are crawling around in the dark, their whiskers are one of their main sources for sensing the environment, Jones said. Likewise, human eyelashes sense an object coming towards the eye and signal the eyelid to close.

One application for the whisker research is creating a whiskered catheter tip to be used during certain cardiac procedures to help prevent atrial fibrillation. To enter the heart, the catheter must wind through the body and then precisely, with the right amount of pressure, touch the heart atrium. Having whiskers on the catheter would allow a surgeon to move quickly, know where he was in the heart and identify how close he was getting to the spot he needed to hit.

The team is working with a surgeon to ensure the method is practical in the operating room.

While the research at Northwestern University is focusing more on the sensor development, the biology of whisking animals and the cardiac catheterization, Jones’ research consists of finding the best sensor configurations and processing the sensor data from the multi-modal system.

He is working on the problem with ECE graduate students Erik Johnson and Cagdas Tuna.

“Hopefully the development of the engineering process is accelerated if we use what biology has already learned,” Jones said.

Jones believes that the emerging frontier of bio-inspired sensors will help detect the environment in new ways, Jones said.

“I think that’s really a huge direction that the engineering community will go in the next decade,” Jones said. “Plus, the opportunity of collaborating with biologists will speed up the learning curve of building the models.”