As frequent readers of this newsletter know, DFC HQ is located deep in the country. As such, our team has had their workday interrupted by fishers, porcupines, cows, donkeys, and any number of gorgeous local and migrating birds.
One bird I’d love to see is the magnificent barn owl, which is regrettably endangered. We’re just barely in its habitat range, and I would die happy if I spotted one! My birding appetite is only whetted by some fascinating tech news just out of Penn State. Researchers there have studied the barn owl’s prodigious sense of hearing and turned around a cool new invention: a circuit that mimics the way a barn owl triangulates the location of its prey. This circuit could revolutionize wayfinding technology — all thanks to the greatest designer of all, Mother Nature.
“The ability to use sound to locate relies on the distance between the ears. In barn owls, that distance is quite small, but the brain’s circuitry has adapted to be able to discriminate this small difference. If the owl is facing the sound source, then both ears receive the sound simultaneously. If the sound is off to the right, the right ear registers the sound slightly before the left.
However, locating objects by sound is not that simple. The speed of sound is faster than the owl’s nerves can function so after the owl brain converts the sound to an electrical pulse, the pulse is slowed down. Then the brain’s circuitry uses a lattice of nerves of different lengths with inputs from two ends, to determine which length is where the two signals coincide or arrive at the same time. This provides the direction.”
The team has created a complicated proof-of-concept circuit, involving split gate transistors and a time-delay mechanism. This translates the barn owl’s brain into electronic terms, that can be applied anywhere there’s power to run it. Check out the Penn State press release for a fabulously detailed explanation here.
Evolution is an incredibly efficient design process, and the creators have acknowledged the time and energy saved by piggy-backing their invention off an already tried-and-true natural blueprint. We owe so much to our natural world — and remixing it may be the sincerest form of flattery!