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Pinniped-inspired whisker sensors

In nature, whiskers are used at different scales to provide navigation feedback by sensing environmental disturbances. Mammals, insects, and fish rely on whisker structures for sensory perception through direct mechanical contact with solid surfaces or through fluid (air or liquid) excitation. The dynamic behavior of a whisker sensory structure plays an important role in the processing of environmental signals before these reach the nervous system. As a result, the mechanical properties of the different components within the whisker sensory mechanism can impact both sensitivity and measurement range.

Pinnipeds (e.g. seals, sea lions, etc) track prey using only information provided by their whiskers. They can successfully locate tracks even several minutes after a prey has passed by. This feat is even more remarkable given that thin elongated structures such as whiskers are expected to develop vortex induced vibrations (VIV) as they are dragged through a liquid medium. The resulting uncontrolled vibrations would present an underlaying noise that would severely interfere with measurements. In the case of pinniped whiskers, their unique geometry seems to minimize or eliminate VIV making these simple systems highly sensitive to environmental perturbations. Our group is developing sensors that use pinniped whisker particular geometries and exploit the dynamic properties of their follicles.

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