New understanding of bat wings could lead to advances in aviation

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Touch receptors in bat wings may inspire similar sensors in aircraft wings

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If you've ever seen a bat in flight, then you'll know how quickly and precisely they can maneuver. Scientists from Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University and the University of Maryland have now uncovered one of the key factors that allows them to do so – and it could have applications in the design of aircraft.

Led by Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Prof. Cynthia F. Moss, the researchers studied the sensory receptors of the big brown bat. More specifically, they studied an array of those receptors, which are clustered in groups around the base of tiny hairs on the bat's wings. As the animal is in flight, those hairs are ruffled by changes in airflow. The receptors allow the bat to feel those changes through its sense of touch, so it can respond by adjusting its flight path as needed.

A microscope image of a bat's sensory neurons (Image: Kara Marshall/Columbia University Medical Center and Ben Falk/John Hopkins University)

In order to test this observation, the scientists subjected bats' hairs to short puffs of air. The animals' primary somatosensory cortex responded with very focused but also quick bursts of activity, suggesting that the system is optimized for making very fast maneuvers. It is now hoped that the findings could be applied to guidance systems for aircraft such as autonomous drones, allowing them to avoidance obstacles by reading the air turbulence flowing around them.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Cell Reports.

The video below from Columbia University Medical Center discusses the findings.

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