A Biologically Inspired Controllable Stiffness Multimodal Whisker Follicle

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis takes a soft robotics approach to understand the computational role of a soft whisker follicle with mechanisms to control the stiffness of the whisker. In particular, the thesis explores the role of the controllable stiffness whisker follicle to selectively favour low frequency geometric features of an object or the high frequency texture features of the object.

Tactile sensing is one of the most essential and complex sensory systems for most living beings. To acquire tactile information and explore the environment, animals use various biological mechanisms and transducing techniques. Whiskers, or vibrissae are a form of mammalian hair, found on almost all mammals other than homo sapiens. For many mammals, and especially rodents, these whiskers are essential as a means of tactile sensing.

The mammalian whisker follicle contains multiple sensory receptors strategically organised to capture tactile sensory stimuli of different frequencies via the vibrissal system. Nocturnal mammals such as rats heavily depend on whisker based tactile perception to find their way through burrows and identify objects. There is diversity in the whiskers in terms of the physical structure and nervous innervation. The robotics community has developed many different whisker sensors inspired by this biological basis. They take diverse mechanical, electronic, and computational approaches to use whiskers to identify the geometry, mechanical properties, and objects' texture. Some work addresses specific object identification features and others address multiple features such as texture and shape etc. Therefore, it is vital to have a comprehensive discussion of the literature and to understand the merits of bio-inspired and pure-engineered approaches to whisker-based tactile perception.

The most important contribution is the design and use of a novel soft whisker follicle comprising two different frequency-dependent data capturing modules to derive more profound insights into the biological basis of tactile perception in the mammalian whisker follicle. The new insights into the biological basis of tactile perception using whiskers provide new design guidelines to develop efficient robotic whiskers.
Date of Award1 Nov 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorThrishantha Nanayakkara (Supervisor), Hongbin Liu (Supervisor) & Elizabeth Sklar (Supervisor)

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