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Bat signals

Bat signals
09 May
Scientists working with new drone technology are hoping to reveal the hidden secrets behind the bat’s uncanny navigation skills

In Sierra County, New Mexico, a drone rises from the ground and hovers near the mouth of a cave, waiting. The cavern is empty, but its residents, a colony of Brazilian free tailed bats, will soon be coming home. As dawn breaks and the swarm returns, the drone picks up the chirps of more than 3,000 individuals and records their flight patterns.

The chirocopter (pictured below), named after the biological group chiroptera, has been developed by biologists at Saint Mary’s College, Indiana, and will be flown outside bat caves in order to help answer important questions about the creatures’ movement patterns. Previously, scientists have used kites, balloons and towers to capture bat flight. However, ‘bats fly in complex trajectories, assemble in large groups, fly thousands of metres above ground and reach speeds exceeding 100 kilometres per hour,’ says Laura Kloepper, one of the biologists who helped build the drone. She hopes the device’s manoeuvrability will be able to keep up with the bats in flight. To help matters, the drone is fitted with a thermal camera and an acoustic sensor all designed to offer previously unobtainable glimpses of behaviour inside a bat swarm.


It’s thought that the bats’ extraordinary skills in the air could prove beneficial to our own forms of navigation technology. ‘Biomimicry is a field of science in which we look to living organisms to help us solve technological problems,’ says Kloepper. It’s well documented that bats use echolocation, creating a sonic map of their surroundings using high-frequency noises. However, biologists are stumped by the animals’ ability to avoid confusing each other within large, noisy swarms. In fact, bats rarely collide mid-air.

By revealing how the bats adjust to their own dense populations and filter out interfering signals, technology from ocean mapping to submarine navigation could benefit. ‘We use sonar in a lot of devices, but we still face the challenge of mutual interference,’ explains Kloepper. ‘Bats have clearly solved this problem.’ 

This was published in the May 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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