Thanks to their habit of remaining concealed, the first indication many people get that termites have invaded their home is well after they've already wreaked their particular brand of wood-eating havoc. According to Associate Professor Adam Osseiran of Western Australia's Edith Cowan University, the yearly damage bill in the U.S. for termite damage tops US$12 billion, while in Australia they cause an estimated $1 to $3 billion damage each year. In an attempt to reduce such damage, Osseiran and his team have developed an acoustic sensor that is so sensitive it can detect termite infestation by "hearing" them chew through timber.

The device, called WiSPr ("Wireless Smart Probe" network for acoustic detection) consists of a tiny sensor much smaller than a fingernail that is attached to wood around a house or retro-fitted to existing termite stations. It continually listens for the acoustic signature of termites munching away and once it detects their presence, it can immediately send an SMS or email to a pest control company with the termites' GPS location so they can jump into action - siren's blaring presumably - to protect the property.

"You would need about 20 devices placed every few meters around a house and they would be continuously listening and monitoring and providing an effective shield against termite attacks," says Osseiran.

In addition to acting as sentry within houses, the researchers say WiSPr could also be placed in the ground to instantly detect their presence and serve as an early warning device to indicate that a property is going to come under attack. The device could also be used to detect termite activity in other timber structures, such as bridges and power poles.

"If termites attack a pole, it could immediately send a signal to maintenance staff," Osseiran says. "Or by driving past bridges, council staff could 'interrogate' the device and find out about the health of the bridges, or poles, while they are driving. That could be done by a smartphone application, which is something we are working on."

The team from Edith Cowan University say the market for termite control is huge, with the U.S., Australia and Japan the three biggest markets. The researchers are looking to commercialize the device in Australia in the next twelve months.