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article imageStudying bats leads to better aeroplanes

By Tim Sandle     Nov 3, 2015 in Science
Many aspects of the animal world have been borrowed by humans in the process of creating objects and technology. Bats, for example, aided radar. Bats can also, a new study found, help us to fly aircraft better.
Bats are effective at flying and have great maneuverability. Bats have advanced hearing and vision. They also emit sounds to the environment and listen to the echoes of those calls that return from various objects near them. Bats can use these echoes to locate and identify the objects (echolocation.) For years scientists have studied echolocation and the role that sound plays in allowing a bat to fly past objects that it might otherwise crash into.
However, echolocation is not the only contributor to a bat’s extraordinary flying ability, according to Columbia University researchers. Touch also plays a part. A new study has found that the wing of the bat is composed of a bank of sensory receptors. These receptors send information back to the brain of the bat, communicating important information during flight. Through the sensors the bat "feels" the airflow and can use this information to adjust the position of its wings so it maximizes the airflow for the most energy effective speed.
The receptors are intricately connected into the nervous system of the bat. The entire bat wing is a combination of hairs and sensitive receptors. Researchers think the location of the receptors relative to each other (the spatial pattern) is key to the collection of valuable information about air velocity and direction. The signals are passed through sensory neurons. The bat’s brain is well equipped to interpret the signals.
Speaking with Laboratory Manager magazine, Dr. Ellen Lumpkin, the lead researcher, noted: “This study provides evidence that the sense of touch plays a key role in the evolution of powered flight in mammals.”
It is hoped that one day the lessons drawn from the bat’s sensors can be used to design aircraft that are as agile and maneuverable as bats.
The findings of the study are published in the journal Cell Reports, in a paper headed “Somatosensory Substrates of Flight Control in Bats.”
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