Jan. 26, 2012 at 2:34 PM ET
The next time you find yourself trapped under a pile of rubble, your savior might be a Roomba — souped-up with whiskers and a monkey brain.
Such a robot was recently shown to outperform other whiskered robots in characterizing its environment, using technology that could wend its way into next-generation search and rescue robots, the University of Sheffiled reports.
Researchers have long known that rats sense their environment with whiskers. But models of how their brains interpret these signals vary.
One approach, for example, has assumed that rats looked at whisker movement patterns and vibrations over a set period of time and then used that information to make a decision.
But various robots created with this model, Science Now explains, correctly guessed the floor beneath them only 50 to 80 percent of the time, after 0.4 seconds of exposure.
Nathan Lepora at the University of Sheffield in England wondered if outfitting these robots with a model of how the monkey brain makes decisions would be an improvement.
Previous research shows that individual neurons in monkey brains ramp up their firing rates when making decisions about the direction of motion for a group of random dots flashing on a screen.
A decision is made when the firing of these neurons cross a certain threshold. If the neurons responding to the up motion cross the threshold first, for example, the monkey would say the dots are moving up.
Lepora and his team fitted a brain model based on this monkey study into an existing Roomba with rat whiskers and found that it nearly flawlessly correctly identified the type of flooring beneath it.
The findings are reported Jan. 25 in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.
In addition to improved rescue robots, the result suggests that rat brains may function similar to those of monkeys — in fact, they "suggest the possibility of a common account of decision-making across mammalian species," the team conclude.
More on whiskers, rats, monkeys, and brains:
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.