Bats flying at top speed easily dodge obstacles and chase down moving insects even on the darkest of nights. The remarkable sonar system that permits such nighttime aerobatics by many bat species produced the myth that bats are blind. They're not, of course, but their agility when vision is useless inspired a British invention that may give new mobility to humans who cannot see.
A "Batcane," developed by Sound Foresight Ltd. and Cambridge Consultants Ltd., directly mimics bats' echolocation by emitting ultrasonic pulses of sound (beyond the reach of human hearing) and analyzing the echoes that bounce back from nearby objects. Obstacles trigger vibrations on one of four pads in the cane's handle. The closer the object, the faster the vibration.
The unique cane is designed to allow the blind to build a sort of mind-map of their immediate surroundings, locating obstacles at both ground level and head height to their front and sides. Similar in appearance to the traditional white cane, the Batcane requires no programming and runs on conventional AA batteries.
Trials with prototype models are under way in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, and Germany. A CCL spokesman said preliminary results are very encouraging, and the cane may be available in 2003.
The connection to bats is no coincidence. The spokesman said Sound Foresight's Board of Directors includes Dr. Dean Waters, a Senior Lecturer in the University of Leeds' School of Biology. Bat echolocation is among Waters' major research topics, and he has published extensively in the scientific literature.