How Bats Are Helping The Blind
Studies of the only flying mammal in the world have led to obstacle detectors assisting those who cannot see!
Try to imagine doing your daily tasks with your eyes closed. May be difficult right? The blind face such difficulties every day. Do not get me wrong— you may be inclined to believe blindness will deter you from having any kind of normal life. However, blindness does not stop people from disrupting industries in fruitful ways, making groundbreaking discoveries, and revolutionizing society as we know it. If you do not believe me, look into the numerous trailblazers like, Louis Braille who as a result of an early childhood accident was blinded and decided to develop a system of tactile code that could allow blind people to read and write quickly and efficiently; the world-famous Braille System, that to this day, remains virtually unchanged. Or, perhaps Hellen Keller, who was about two when she became blind and deaf following an illness. But decided to read and write Braille, and go on to study in a college and write world-famous books; all while devoting her life to helping the blind and the deaf. The list of historic figures in the blind community is prosperous and endless. The study of an incredibly agile creature flying with their long spread-out digits across caves may have led us to find a new hero for the blind.
Hearing in the Dark
“The sound changes right? Echolocation."
Let’s try an experiment together. Make a loud and constant “shhh” sound as if telling someone to be quiet. Now close your eyes and move your hand back and forth repeatedly in front of your face. The sound changes right? Do you hear that? What you are foolishly doing is a simplified version of echolocation. Bats are true professionals at this. In 1793, while conducting experiments, an Italian scientist named Lazzaro Spallanzani found that some flying owls would crash into obstacles in absolute darkness. On the other hand, Bats could somehow avoid the same obstacles even in pitch-black darkness. Stunned by his findings, he proceeded with a gruesome experiment that would lead to a surprising discovery. Lazzaro blinded the bats and found that they could still somehow “see” and avoid the obstacles. The bats flew in total darkness, without any inconvenience, as if there was light! Furthering his experiments, he plugged their ears and discovered the bats could no longer fly stable and would crash into the objects in total darkness, blinded or not. Spallanzani’s conclusion was simple; Bats could somehow “see” with their ears.
In 1938, while an undergraduate at Harvard University, Donald Redfield Griffin embarked on studying the navigational method of bats. Essentially, using tools like microphones, Griffin discovered most echolocating bats produce a high-frequency chirp that sweeps across an area and humans were not capable of hearing them. Subsequently, Griffin would formally label this discovery as animal echolocation in 1944. Echolocation, also called biosonar, is used by several animal species like bats by emitting calls out to the environment and listening to the echoes of those calls that return from various objects near them. They use these echoes to precisely locate and identify the objects. Echolocation is used by bats for navigation, foraging, and hunting in various environments. A major reason why bats are known to reside in caves is that if you are gifted with the ability to be extraordinary with the use of echoes, that is the perfect place to be— away from noisy forests or gusting winds. Caves also provide bats protection from predators who are not as fortunate to see in the dark.
Technology and Biomimicry
Closely studying the blueprint Mother Nature laid out for us enables technological innovations, which in turn, enable improvements in societal processes. This is formally known as Biomimicry— the emulation of the models, systems, and elements of nature to solve complex human problems. With the close study of Echolocation and bats, several companies have decided to develop tools to assist the blind. The first step was analyzing the current tools and people who are blind or visually impaired tend to walk down the street with a white cane that usually has a red band on the end of it. This choice of colors allows the cane to stand out in public for others to see and avoid interfering with. For years, innovators have tried to re-structure this standard white cane (or any traditional aiding stick) to ensure the blind or visually impaired experience a much-improved life. After devoted research and development, A bat-inspired sonar cane could further assist the visually impaired sense their surroundings with much more improvement. Similar to Echolocation, these engineered canes emit sounds extremely high-pitched for the human ear to detect. Furthermore, the sonar canes pick up the reflections of these waves to map obstacles up to three meters away in multiple dimensions. Once an obstacle is detected, a warning sound is provided by the device to the user, and/or small vibrating buttons mounted in the handle indicate to the user there is an object detected close to the cane. In other words, this form of Echolocation allows the cane’s physical object detection capability to be expanded almost seamlessly.
With technological innovations, you inevitably encounter a growing curve of hardship with users. While the gap of object detection for the visually impaired and blind has been slightly narrowed by this innovation, there is still much more room for improvement and innovation. The sonar canes have a limited range of detection and quite frankly, the cane system still leaves the upper body of the user somewhat vulnerable to overhangs, such as tree branches. Besides, there may be some difficulties with training individuals to use the devices properly. We come to experience that the beauty and demise of technology are that people tend to use the same device differently from it’s intended use; While some may maximize the potential of the device, others may never truly understand how to use it at its minimum intended purpose.
Honestly, after further research on echolocation, bats, and technology I wish to visit the Grand Canyon (one of the famous seven wonders of the world) and yell off the top of my lungs into the endless valley just to hear back my echo. In the end, I hope this echolocation technology implemented for the visually impaired or blind is furthered; As you may know, Echolocation is already used in numerous fields in our society such as submarines as well as, other animals. When it comes to marine mammals, dolphins have cornered the market on popularity. I mean, who doesn’t love dolphins? As we see in all the movies, the way they glide through the water and sail through the air is simply magical. Most importantly, dolphins also possess a unique ability to “see” with a sound using Echolocation. Many experts believe their ability to do so, paired with their superior intelligence in the animal kingdom, is far more impressive than bats’. But, we are not going to take away the spotlight on bats today. Stay tuned for a possible blog on dolphins’ impressive intelligence. For now, try the Echolocation experiment illustrated earlier with your friends and share this!
Photo by Mel Poole from Unsplash