Science

New understanding of bat wings could lead to advances in aviation

Touch receptors in bat wings may inspire similar sensors in aircraft wings
Touch receptors in bat wings may inspire similar sensors in aircraft wings
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A microscope image of a bat's sensory neurons (Image: Kara Marshall/Columbia University Medical Center and Ben Falk/John Hopkins University)
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A microscope image of a bat's sensory neurons (Image: Kara Marshall/Columbia University Medical Center and Ben Falk/John Hopkins University)
Touch receptors in bat wings may inspire similar sensors in aircraft wings
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Touch receptors in bat wings may inspire similar sensors in aircraft wings

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)
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.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

A Feel for Flight: How Studying Bat Touch Could Help Build Better Planes

4 comments
DrKnock
Fascinating! Bravo! However, better without background music behind her voice.
watersworm
Like Clement Ader's first "plane" in 1896 ?
F Beckett
The stall warning device that aircraft use now, and the angle of attack indicator are crude ways that the pilot of today receives some of the information that the bat gathers with his sensors. If the multiple location of sensors can derive better and useful information from the wings of the aircraft then I think that is something that is doable. There are many sensors that are capable of discerning air pressure in minute quantities and if the wing can be made to respond to that indication we might have a bat wing. Great insight.
Martin Hone
I can see how a more sensitive system for determining flow separation would lead to better stall warning, but the focus seemed to be on making a future aircraft more agile. That can only happen if there are major structural changes , like flexible wings, that could allow such antics. Not likely.
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