SCRATCHbot named as winning innovation by 'Popular Science'

Issue date: 12 November 2009

SCRATCHbot SCRATCHbot, a new robotic initiative by Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) and the University of Sheffield has been named in the list 'Best of What's New' published by Popular Science magazine. SCRATCHbot was chosen from thousands of products reviewed by the editors of Popular Science to find the top 100 tech innovations of the year. The winning product or technology must represent a significant step forward in its category.

The SCRATCHbot is an innovative robot rat which can seek out and identify objects using its whiskers. The research is being developed by BRL, (a partnership between the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol) and the Active Touch Laboratory at the University of Sheffield under the pan-european “ICEA” project to develop biologically-inspired artificial intelligence systems.

The new technology has been inspired by the use of touch in the animal kingdom. For some nocturnal creatures, or some that inhabit poorly-lit places, this physical sense is widely preferred to vision as a primary means of discovering the world. Rats are especially effective at exploring their environments using their whiskers. They are able to accurately determine the position, shape and texture of objects using precise rhythmic sweeping movements of their whiskers, make rapid accurate decisions about objects, and then use the information to build environmental maps.

Robot designs often rely on vision to identify objects, but this new technology relies solely on sophisticated touch technology, enabling the robot to function in spaces such as dark or smoke-filled rooms, where vision cannot be used.

Dr Tony Pipe, (BRL), says “For a long time, vision has been the main biological sense most studied by scientists. But active touch sensing is a key focus for those of us looking at biological systems which have implications for robotics research. Sensory systems such as rats' whiskers have particular advantages. In humans, where sensors are at the fingertips, they are more vulnerable to damage and injury than whiskers. Rats have the ability to operate with damaged whiskers, and broken whiskers on robots could be easily replaced, without affecting the whole robot and its expensive engineering. This award is a welcome recognition that our research is a leap forward for technology in this area.”

Professor Tony Prescott (University of Sheffield) said: “We held a workshop earlier this year at the University of Sheffield in which we were able to demonstrate the unique properties of the SCRATCHbot and the direction of our research in the development of actively-controlled, whisker-like sensors for intelligent machines. Although touch sensors are already employed in robots, the use of touch as a principal modality has been overlooked until now. By developing these biomimetic robots, we are not just designing novel touch-sensing devices, but also making a real contribution to understanding the biology of tactile sensing.”

Mark Jannot, Editor-in-Chief of Popular Science says, “For 22 years, Popular Science has honored the innovations that surprise and amaze us − those that make a positive impact on our world today and challenge our views of what's possible in the future. The Best of What's New Award is the magazine's top honor, and the 100 winners − chosen from among thousands of entrants − represent the highest level of achievement in their fields.”

The Active Touch Laboratory at Sheffield (ATL@S) is part of the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield.


Editors notes:

The winners - the Best of What's New - are included in the December issue of Popular Science. Best of What's New awards are presented to 100 new products and technologies in 11 categories, SCRATCHbot has won in the Security category.

Founded in 1872, Popular Science is the world's largest science and technology magazine; with a circulation of 1.3 million and 6.8 million monthly readers. Each month, Popular Science reports on the intersection of science and everyday life, with an eye toward what's new and why it matters. Popular Science is published by Bonnier Active Media, a subsidiary of Bonnier Corporation.

SCRATCHbot (Spatial Cognition and Representation through Active TouCh) has been developed with funding from the European Union Framework 6 programme as part of €6.5M ICEA (Integrating Cognition Emotion and Autonomy) project Future development of robotic touch technologies, by Sheffield, Bristol Robotics Laboratory, and international partners, will carry on through the BIOTACT (BIOmimetic Technology for vibrissal ACtive Touch) project, funded by the EU Framework 7 “Future Emerging Technologies” programme (FET) and led by Sheffield.

Bristol Robotics Lab is a collaborative research partnership funded by the University of the West of England, University of Bristol and HEFCE. See:

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