Sound location inspired by bat ears could help robots navigate outdoors

Jon Fingas
·Associate Editor
·1-min read

Sound location technology has often been patterned around the human ear, but why do that when bats are clearly better at it? Virginia Tech researchers have certainly asked that question. They've developed a sound location system that mates a bat-like ear design with a deep neural network to pinpoint sounds within half a degree — a pair of human ears is only accurate within nine degrees, and even the latest technology stops at 7.5 degrees.

The system flutters the outer ear to create Doppler shift signatures related to the sound's source. As the patterns are too complex to easily decipher, the team trained the neural network to provide the source direction for every received echo. And unlike human-inspired systems, it only needs one receiver and a single frequency.

There's a lot of work left before this is practical, but the scientists can already see their bat-based technology helping robots navigate "complex" outdoor spaces with little work. You could see farm robots that harvest with high precision, biodiversity monitors with uncanny accuracy and military robots that traverse difficult terrain with little input. If nothing else, this is a reminder that the most effective biomimicry isn't necessarily based on our own biology.