Aug. 20 - Israeli researchers are using bats to develop better radar and sonar systems. By attaching GPS units and microphones to the animals, scientists hope to learn more about the bats' remarkable echolocation abilities and adapt that knowledge to systems for human use. Matt Stock reports.
STORY: The sound being emitted by this bat is part of an evolutionary system that allows it to navigate in total darkness, hunt prey and communicate with other bats. The ultrasonic sonar signals are emitted and then reflected back off an object. It's called echolocation - with bats able to judge distances to within a millimetre. Scientists from Tel Aviv University want to know how they do it, so they're attaching high-tech sensors to the creatures' backs to follow them in flight. It's hoped data obtained from the bats will give engineers new ideas of how to build better radar and sonar technologies. Noam Tzvikel is part of the research team. (SOUNDBITE) (English) NOAM TZVIKEL, TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY STUDENT, SAYING: "I believe that we can learn a lot of stuff from them that we don't know. For example, bats can distinguish between objects in one millimetre of distance and they can do a lot of stuff that engineers nowadays - human engineers - cannot understand yet." But it's delicate work. Mini GPS units and ultra-sonic microphones are carefully attached to the bats using surgical glue. Researchers can then track the bats movements, while the microphone will record the bat's ultrasonic sonar signals. Leading the experiment is Dr Yossi Yovel who says the experiment is only now possible thanks to the latest generation of sensors. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR YOSSI YOVEL, ZOOLOGY DEPARTMENT, TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We are trying to take neuroscience out to the field, so we're monitoring bats outside in the field where they are flying in their natural behaviour - it's extremely noisy, it's not a controlled environment and to do this we are trying to develop highly controlled sensors that we can put on the bat and monitor, for instance, the sensory input coming in. In the university laboratory, Dr Yovel's team are conducting tests to see if a bat's nose structure is actively changing the focus and direction of the sonar beam. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR YOSSI YOVEL, ZOOLOGY DEPARTMENT, TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY, SAYING: "We're simultaneously recording, using video to do very high resolution imaging of their nose leaf and recording with a very large microphone array - a sonic microphone array - to see if there's any change here (POINTS TO FACE) that correlates to changes in the beam. We hope to show, for the first time, that bats actively form their beams, or change this beam." Dr. Yovel next plans to build what he calls an 'imprinted colony' - an artificial environment simulating wilderness where bats will be equipped with sensory devices, including cameras. Its a gradual process, but the team is confident that eventually, they will learn the bats' secrets.