Bats use a clever technique called echolocation to hunt down food in the dark, mapping their surroundings by emitting ultrasound waves from their mouths and analyzing those that bounce back. Scientists at Tel Aviv University have used this impressive capability as inspiration for a new robot, which is able to autonomously navigate through an environment relying on this naturally-inspired form of sonar.

Where bats use their mouths to bounce little squeaks off cave walls and their excellent hearing to analyze the returning echoes, the so-called Robat relies an ultrasonic speaker and a pair of ultrasonic microphones instead.

This setup enables it to emit small chirps at the same frequencies as a typical bat and use an onboard artificial neural network to model its surroundings in rich detail. So much so, that it is able to detect obstacles and move around them, and even work out whether it is being blocked by a solid object like a wall or something more navigable like a plant.

We've seen researchers tap into the science of echolocation before to develop promising new sonar systems, but this does appear one of the first instances of the technology being built into functioning robot. The team hopes the work can open the door to an advanced breed of robots that use sound in this way to make their way through unfamiliar environments.

"Our Robat is the first fully autonomous, bat-like biorobot that moves through a novel environment while mapping it solely based on echo information," says Tel Aviv University graduate student Itamar Eliakim. "This information delineates the borders of objects and the free paths between them. We've been able to demonstrate the great potential of using sound in future robotic applications."

The research was published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, while the video below demonstrates the Robat's capabilities.