Given that most bats hang out (literally) in caves and other secretive places, and only fly at night, they’re not the easiest of creatures to study. Tel Aviv University zoologist Dr. Yossi Yovel, however, has a plan. He is currently establishing the world’s first bat colony to be born and raised in captivity. Although the resulting “roost” will be based out of a research facility, the bats will be free to come and go to hunt for insects in the surrounding environment. As they do so, some of them will be equipped with high-tech sensors designed to gather information on their behavior.

Bats are well-known for their use of echolocation for tracking prey and assessing their surroundings. The animals emit ultrasonic “pings,” which reflect off of the objects around them. By analyzing those reflected-back sonar signals, bats are able to determine the shape, proximity and speed of objects in pitch-black surroundings with uncanny accuracy – they can reportedly measure time within hundreds of nanoseconds, while judging distances within less than a millimeter. This is essential to their survival, as they need to target tiny airborne insects while flying at speeds of up to 50 km/h (31 mph).

In order to better understand how bats can do what they do so well, Yovel plans on fitting some of his captive-raised bats with small, lightweight sensor packages. In the immediate future, these will include a GPS unit and ultra-sonic microphone. As the animals go about their nightly hunts, the GPS will keep a record of where they’ve gone, while the microphone will record both their outgoing and incoming sonar signals. By analyzing the amount of time that passes between a signal being emitted and then received in a reflected form, he hopes to gain an insight into the creatures’ decision-making processes.

Farther down the road, those processes could be even better understood via bat-wearable EEG devices, which would measure the electrical activity in the bats’ brains as they emit and assess their sonar signals. Yovel would also like to equip the animals with night-vision cameras.

Besides leading to more knowledge on bats as a species, the research could reportedly also have applications in the study of robotics, sensors, and sonar technology, along with the functioning of the brain.

“Time coding in the brain is something that we don't understand well,” Dr. Yovel said. “We don't know how neurons that work on a time scale of milliseconds can measure time with an accuracy of hundreds of nanoseconds. Since humans rely on vision, we can't accurately measure when something is perceived. But because bats emit sonar calls that can be recorded and analyzed, we have a window into the bat's brain.”