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Discovery Magazine 4/1/2007


Quick to the Bat-Cane!

Bats have an amazing way of flying through caves that are filled with dangerous obstacles, like stalactites and stalagmites. While most bats have decent vision, they also have extremely sensitive hearing. Bats make a sound that humans cannot hear. Do not confuse this sound with the squeaky noise you hear when you stand next to the bat exhibit at your local zoo (bats make those noises when they are frustrated, excited, or mating).

This shrill, high-pitched noise that you can’t hear bounces off objects in a bat’s flying path, giving it plenty of time to dodge whatever is in the way. This process is called echolocation. Bats make these sounds from a few, to two hundred, times per second. Not all bats use echolocation; approximately 200 species of fruit bats in Africa, Asia, and Australia have larger eyes and use only their sharp vision to avoid obstacles. Other animals, including dolphins, orca, and beluga whales, use echolocation under water, like sonar signals. Echolocation also has been observed in mammals such as rodents, insect-eating mammals, and some birds such as oil birds and cave swiftlets.

Scientists have used their knowledge of bat “vision” to create the UltraCane. It is a new electronic mobility aid, designed to help people—especially the blind—get around more easily and safely. It uses ultrasonic signals which bounce off objects in its path and “echo” back to the cane. The device sends that information to the buttons on the handle, telling the user how far away the objects are and whether they are in front or at head height.

The user of UltraCane gets feedback through his fingers. The signals reach a part of the brain that creates mental maps subconsciously, so, when the brain has become accustomed to the signals, the user can process the information from his cane’s echolocation almost effortlessly. More and more mobility trainers worldwide are learning how to use the UltraCane. Those who now can move more easily can thank not only the designers of UltraCane, but also the Creator of all life Who made those remarkable bats!



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