Many animals use their whiskers to feel their way through dark environments, and a newly-designed robot could do the same.

The new "whisker" tactile sensor array is made for the purpose of producing tomographic images by measuring fluid flow, the Institute of Physics reported.

"When it is dark, whiskers play a key role for animals in exploring, hunting or even just living underground" said Cagdas Tuna, a lead author on the paper. "For example, seals can catch fish in the dark by following the hydrodynamic wake using their whiskers."

The whisker array is constructed of five super-elastic Nitinol wires that are covered in plastic straws. Their movement is measured by strain gauges attached at the base, and the images are used to build a fluid flow past the array.

"There's no proof that animals do a similar 'tomographic reconstruction' in their brains," Tuna said. "But this shows great potential to be a useful, if unconventional, sensing system."

The innovative new system could be used for tracking or detection in the dark, and the device could have even more uses if scientists work to improve the imaging model focusing on object content and miniaturization of the system.

"This may even find use in biomedical applications, such as cardiac surgery" Tuna said. "A thin-whiskered catheter tip could be used during surgery to track the relative position inside the heart, potentially reducing the risk of injury, or atrial fibrillation."

The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics in an article titled "Tactile soft-sparse mean fluid-flow imaging with a robotic whisker array."