Photo by waferboard via Flickr Creative Commons
It's no surprise that many bugs have excellent hearing thanks to finely honed antenna. Checking out the giant antenna on the tiny bug above, it seems no surprise that they can hear surprisingly well. In fact, some insect antennae are so powerful, engineers haven't yet been able to come close to mimicking nature. And that's especially when it comes to small, directional antennae. It's one thing to have whip-like "ears" like the bug above, but what stumps engineers is making very small, but very acute sound sensors. Yet a minute fly -- with minute antenna -- is about to change that, and help revolutionize how we built these structures.
Photo via Wikimedia Creative Commons
This is the insect that inspired researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with its incredible sense of hearing. According to the university, "Ormia ochracea is a small parasitic fly best known for its strong sense of directional hearing. A female fly tracks a male cricket by its chirps and then deposits her eggs on the unfortunate host. The larvae subsequently eat the cricket."
Insects have been used in biomimicry in a number of ways, including improving the flight of robots to the energy efficiency of brightly colored displays, and even to new wind turbine design. But in this case, it is the extremely acute hearing that inspired improved technology behind antennas.
"Designing small, directional antennas is one of those things we tell students can't happen. But the question is, what if it can be done?" asks Nader Behdad, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university. And it's biomimicry that can help him do the impossible.
Behdad recognized that humans are pretty good at directional hearing, noting that we're kind of like a walking antenna. He started looking at smaller and smaller animals, such as mice and bugs, to find out how the smaller size affects how they receive and interpret sounds. That's when he came across this tiny parasitic fly, one of the smallest creatures with incredible directional hearing.
"There hasn't been any work done to design antennas that mimic the hearing mechanism of different insects," he told University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We've designed a basic proof-of-concept antenna and have some preliminary results. But at this point, we still need to understand what the physics are."
According to the university, "Behdad's designs are for a type of antenna known as super resolving, which is capable of distinguishing signals coming from different directions. If he can create very small, efficient super-resolving antennas, the technology could result in significantly more wireless bandwidth, better cell phone reception and other applications in the consumer electronics industry, as well as new radar and imaging systems."
While insects are often considered pests, they're rich with incredible features that offer endless inspiration for scientists. And though it's their wings that often get the most attention, their other senses can't be underestimated. Bee eyes have already helped improve the vision in robots. Now they'll be able to hear a whole lot better too.
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