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Spanish boffins develop bat-like sonar-vision superpower

Iberian Daredevils 'see' through smoke, bodies, walls

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A team of Spanish boffins say they have developed a method of giving humans the power of echolocation or "biosonar" - used by bats for flying at night, and of course by the superhero Daredevil.

"In certain circumstances, we humans could rival bats in our echolocation or biosonar capacity", says Juan Antonio Martínez of the University of Alcalá de Henares (UAH).

Indeed, the research goes further than that. The Spanish team says that "first results indicate that detailed resolution using this method could even rival that of sight itself" - or even exceed it for some purposes. According to UAH, their echolocators can now detect "certain objects inside a bag" or even the bones within a person standing in front of them.

The boffins believe that in future their subjects will be able to "see" through fog or smoke - and even some distance into solid walls, floors or ceilings.

"Even in environments as noisy as the metro, one can sense discontinuities in the platform or tunnels," says Martinez.

Imbuing a person with such echolocation superpowers doesn't involve old-fashioned techniques such as radioactive bat bites, mysterious chemicals, alien technology, implanted machinery, unfortunate krenon-ray mishaps or whatnot. Rather, it's a matter of simply making a noise and listening for the echoes. The best sound is easily made by clicking one's tongue, apparently, though it's important to get the technique right.

"The almost ideal sound is the 'palate click', a click made by placing the tip of the tongue on the palate, just behind the teeth, and moving it quickly backwards - although it is often done downwards, which is wrong", Martínez explains.

One starts off small, as by learning to detect a pen in front of one's lips; then practice will develop better and better ability. Everyone has some basic echolocation skills - we can all, for example, detect discontinuities in roadside barriers or structures simply by changes in the reflected noise from our own car.

"Two hours per day [of clicking practice] for a couple of weeks are enough to distinguish whether you have an object in front of you, and within another two weeks you can tell the difference between trees and a pavement," according to Martinez.

The researcher says that of course his methods of conferring bat-like abilities would be of benefit to the blind. However he also sees them being used by fully sighted individuals who might find them useful.

We should no doubt hope, like Martinez, that these powers will be used only for good - to rescue people from smoke-filled buildings, for instance. Evil supervillains might of course use their bat-powers to peer through darkness, walls, clothing, safe mechanisms etc for nefarious purposes.

The Spanish team's research is published in Acta Acustica united with Acustica. ®

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