Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB) Held Talk on Learning from the Sensory Intelligence of Bats

06 January 2018 – Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB) under the i-Talk series hosted the ‘Learning from The Sensory Intelligence of Bats’ talk by Associate Professor Rolf Muller from Virginia Tech. He is currently an Associate Professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Virginia Tech and directs the Bioinspired Science and Technology (BIST) Center, an ICTAS-supported interdisciplinary effort with 40 faculty members from across the university. In his international efforts, he directs the Shandong University – Virginia Tech International Laboratory that is dedicated to the engineering analysis of biosonar, flight, and system integration in bats. His international work has been recognized by the Friendship Award of the People’s Republic of China (2010), a Dean’s Award of the VT College of Engineering (2011), and Virginia Tech’s Alumni Award for International Research (2016).

In his talk, he highlighted that the high-quality sensory information are of critical importance to the goal of creating man-made intelligent systems that can master the complexities of the real world. A sensory subsystem that fails to provide task-relevant information in a timely and reliable fashion will seriously limit the overall performance of any Artificial Intelligence system operating in the real world. Furthermore, extraction of the relevant information in the sensory periphery produces large reductions of the computational load experienced by later system stages, resulting in smaller, more energy efficient, and more nimble systems.

Bats are a case in point for the power of intelligent approaches to sensing. Using only two pulsed one-dimensional ultrasonic time signals, bats are able to support 3d mobility in complex natural environments. All this is achieved at high speeds (bats need less than 1 second to catch an insect on the wing) and very low computational effort (most bats have brain masses much less than 1 gram). A key feature of sophisticated bat biosonar systems is an additional dynamic dimension that the animals have added to their interfaces for the emission of their ultrasonic pulses and the reception of the returning echoes. Bats change the shape of their noseleaves (“megaphones” for ultrasound emission) and outer ears within 1/10 of a second using an intricate muscular actuation system. The shape changes allow the animals to vastly increase the amount of sensory information on the direction and the nature of a sound/echo source. Pilot data has demonstrated that speech recognition in the presence of other distracting sounds is substantially improved by a dynamic sensory periphery that mimics bat ears. Dynamic sensing paradigms inspired by bats could hence have wide applicability for difficult, real-world sensory tasks, e.g., in the navigation of small autonomous systems (aerial and underwater), speech recognition, sensing of vegetation for precision agriculture and forestry, biomedical ultrasound, as well as monitoring of machinery and civil-engineering structures.

Professor Rolf Mueller has studied various aspects of bat biosonar from the perspectives of biophysics and bioinspired engineering for almost 15 years and has (co)authored over 70 peer-reviewed, full-length publications on the topic. In particular, he has worked on statistical signal processing of sonar signals in complex, natural environments, biosonar beamforming, as well as biomimetic sonar systems. The focus areas of his current research are the extraction of adaptive design rules analysis from biodiversity and bioinspired dynamic principles for sensing.