Nobody ever accused the bat of being beautiful. But its ugliest features—its freakishly ornate ears and intricately furrowed mouth—play a key part in the animal’s uncanny ability to track its prey. The mystery is how.
All active sonar, including in the animal world, involves emitting sound pulses and interpreting the reflected echoes. But even the best man-made systems are no match for the bat, which can sort through countless noises on the fly to pinpoint obstacles or prey, a key part of a navigational process known as echolocation.
Müller, a computational physicist at Shandong University in China, has amassed what is probably the world’s largest database of bat parts—nearly 600 Spock-like ears and wrinkly facial structures called noseleaves. His specimens come from caves, attics and occasionally even restaurant kitchens across Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, Peremans, an electrical engineer at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, is busy creating a set of synthetic ears and mouths based on Müller’s 3-D scans. These will attach onto a life-size robotic bat head dubbed the “robat.” Carrying an ultrasonic transducer capable of producing bat-like 20- to 200-kilohertz pings, it will help them develop better robotic sonar and navigation systems.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.