ATL@S – The Active Touch Laboratory at Sheffield

The Active Touch Laboratory uses methods in animal behaviour, neuroethology, human psychophysics, computational modelling and robotics to investigate tactile sensing in animals, people and intelligent machines. Current research is primarily focused on understanding, and building robot analogs of, the mammalian vibrissal (whisker) system. A key feature of this system is the active control of the positioning and movement of the sensors. We therefore use high-speed videography to study the head and whisker movement strategies that animals such as rats and mice use when exploring environments with their vibrissae. Our computational neuroscience research addresses the neural bases of tactile sensory processing and motor control in the mammalian brain. Robotic modelling work includes investigation of algorithms for motor pattern generation and tactile pattern classification. Current research aims to use the whisker system as model to investigate spatial attention, whereby whisker movements reveal the attended to region of space.

The Active Touch Laboratory is a collaboration between the Department's Adaptive Behaviour and Neural Algorithms research groups, and Sheffield Robotics. We also work closely with the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

Ongoing ATL@S Research

Online resources:

Interviews and news articles

Current Lab members:

Past Lab members

Vacancies: At the current time there are NO RESEARCH POSITIONS AVAILABLE. PhD opportunities are available for SELF-FUNDED students only.

ATL@S Publications (updated June 2015)

In Press and 2015

Glancy, J., Gross, R., Stone, J. V. and Wilson, S. P. (2015). A self-organising model of thermoregulatory huddling. PLoS Computational Biology, in press.

Mitchinson, B. (2015). Tactile Attention in the Vibrissal System. Scholarpedia, 10(3), 32361.

Prescott, T. J. and Dürr, V. (2015). The World of Touch. Scholarpedia, 10(4), 32688.


Arkley, K., Grant, R. A., Mitchinson, B. and Prescott, T. J. (2014). Strategy change in vibrissal active sensing during rat locomotion. Current Biology, 24(13), 1507-1512.

Grant, R. A., Itskov, P. M., Towal, B. and Prescott, T. J. (2014). Active touch sensing: finger tips, whiskers and antennae. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 8:50.

Grant, R. A., Sharp, P. S., Kennerley, A. J., Berwick, J., Grierson, A., Ramesh, T. and Prescott, T. J. (2014). Abnormalities in whisking behaviour are associated with lesions in brain stem nuclei in a mouse model of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Behavioural Brain Research, 259, 274-283.

Mitchinson, B., Pearson, M. J., Pipe, A. G. and Prescott, T. J. (2014). Biomimetic tactile target acquisition, tracking and capture. Robotics and Autonomous Systems, 62(3), 366-375.


Mitchinson, B. and Prescott, T. J. (2013). Whisker movements reveal spatial attention: a unified computational model of active sensing control in the rat. PLoS Computational Biology. 9(9), e1003236.

Evans, M. H., Fox, C. W., Lepora, N. F., Pearson, M. J., Sullivan, J. C. and Prescott, T. J. (2013). The effect of whisker movement on radial distance estimation: a case study in comparative robotic. Frontiers in Neurorobotics, 6:12, doi: 10.3389/fnbot.2012.00012.

Grant, R. A., Haidarliu, S., Kennerley, N. J. and Prescott, T. J. (2013). The evolution of active vibrissal sensing in mammals: evidence from vibrissal musculature and function in the marsupial opossum Monodelphis domestica. Journal of Experimental Biology, 216(18), 3483-3494.

Grant, R. A., Wieskotten, S., Wengstm N., Prescott, T. J. and Dehnhardt, G. (2013). Vibrissal touch sensing in the harbor seal (Phoca vitulina): how do seals judge size? Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology, 199(6), 521-533.


Anderson, S. R., Porrill, J., Pearson, M. J., Pipe, A. G., Prescott, T. J. and Dean, P. (2012). An internal model architecture for novelty detection: implications for cerebellar and collicular roles in sensory processing. PLoS ONE, 7(9), e44560.

Grant, R. A., Mitchinson, B. and Prescott, T. J. (2012). The development of whisker control in rats in relation to locomotion. Developmental Psychobiology, 54(2), 151-168.

Grant, R. A., Sperber, A. L. and Prescott, T. J. (2012). The role of orienting in vibrissal touch sensing. Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, 6:39, doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2012.00039.


Mitchinson, B., Grant, R. A., Arkley, K., Rankov, V., Perkon, I. and Prescott, T. J. (2011). Active vibrissal sensing in rodents and marsupials. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, Biological Sciences, 366(1581), 3037-3048.

Mitchinson, B., Pearson, M. J., Pipe, A. G. and Prescott, T. J. (2011). Biomimetic robots as scientific models: a view from the whisker tip. In Neuromorphic and Brain-Based Robots: Trends and Perspectives (eds: Jeffery L. Krichmar and Hiroaki Wagatsuma), Cambridge University Press, 23-57.

Pearson, M. J., Mitchinson, B., Sullivan, C., Pipe, A. G. and Prescott, T. J. (2011). Biomimetic vibrissal sensing for robots. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, Biological Sciences, 366(1581), 3085-3096.

Prescott, T. J., Diamond, M. E. and Wing, A. M. (2011). Active touch sensing. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, Biological Sciences, 366(1581), 2989-2995.

Prescott, T. J., Mitchinson, B. and Grant, R. (2011). Vibrissal behavior and function. Scholarpedia, 6(10), 6642.

Wilson, S. P., Bednar, J. A., Prescott, T. J. and Mitchinson, B. (2011). Neural computation via neural geometry: a place code for inter-whisking timing in the barrel cortex? PLoS Computational Biology, 7(10), e1002188.


Gyory, G., Rankov, V., Gordon, G., Perkon, I., Mitchinson, B., Grant, R. A. and Prescott, T. J. (2010). An algorithm for automatic tracking of rat whiskers. Proceedings of International Workshop on Visual Observation and Analysis of Animal and Insect Behavior (VAIB), Istanbul, ICPR 2010, 1-4.

Pearson, M., Mitchinson, B., Welsby, J., Pipe, A. G. and Prescott, T. J. (2010). Scratchbot: active tactile sensing in a whiskered mobile robot. Proceedings of Eleventh International Conference on Simulation of Adaptive Behaviour, Springer LNCS, 6226, 93-103.

Wilson, S. P., Law, J. S., 1, Mitchinson, B., Prescott, T. J., Bednar, J. A. (2010). Modeling the emergence of whisker direction maps in rat barrel cortex. PLoS ONE, 5(1): e8778.

Mitchinson, B., Chan, T., Humphries, M., Chambers, J., Fox, C. And Prescott, T. J. (2010). BRAHMS: Novel middleware for integrated systems computation. Advanced Engineering Informatics, 24(1):49-61.


Fox, C. W., Mitchinson, B., Pearson, M. J., Pipe, A. G., Prescott, T. J. (2009). Behavioral dependency of texture classification in a whiskered mobile robot. Autonomous Robots, 26(4), 223-239.

Fox C, Humphries M, Mitchinson B, Kiss T, Somogyvari Z And Prescott T. J. (2009) Technical integration of hippocampus, basal ganglia and physical models for spatial navigation. Frontiers of Neuroinformatics. 3(6).

Grant, R. A., Mitchinson, B., Fox, C., Prescott, T. J. (2009). Active touch sensing in the rat: Anticipatory and regulatory control of whisker movements during surface exploration. Journal of Neurophysiology, 101. 862-874.

Prescott, T. J., Pearson, M., Mitchinson, B., Sullivan, J. C. W., Pipe, A. G. (2009). Whisking with robots: From rat vibrissae to biomimetic technology for active touch. IEEE Robotics and Automation Magazine, 16(3), 42-50.


Mitchinson, B., Arabzadeh, E., Diamond, M. E., Prescott, T. J. (2008). Spike-timing in primary sensory neurons: a model of somatosensory transduction in the rat. Biological Cybernetics, 98(3), 185-193.

Mitchinson, B., Martin, C. J., Grant, R. A., Prescott, T. J. (2007), Feedback control in active sensing: rat exploratory whisking is modulated by environmental contact, Royal Society Proceedings B, 274(1613).

Pearson, M. J., Mitchinson, B., Pipe, A. G., Melhuish, C., and Prescott, T. J. (2007). Whiskerbot: A robotic active touch system modelled on the rat whisker sensory system. Adaptive Behavior, 15: 223-240.

Mitchinson, B. Pearson, M., Melhuish, C., and Prescott, T.J. (2006), A model of sensorimotor co-ordination in the rat whisker system, From Animals to Animats 9: Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference on Simulation of Adaptive Behaviour, (Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, 4095). Springer-Verlag: Berlin, 77-88.

Pearson, M. J., Gilhespy, I., Melhuish, C., Mitchinson, B., Nibouche, M., Pipe, A. G., Prescott, T. J. (2005) A Biomimetic Haptic Sensor. Journal of Advanced Robotic Systems, 2, 335-343.

Mitchinson, B., Gurney, K., Redgrave, P., Melhuish, C., Pipe, T., Pearson, M., Gilhespy, I., and Prescott, T. J. (2004). Empirically inspired electro-mechanical model of the rat mystacial follicle-sinus-complex. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, 271, 2509-16.