Rolf Müller –
Bryan D. Todd

Popular version of paper 1pAB4, “Beamwidth in bat biosonar and man-made sonar”
Presented Monday, May 7, 2018, 1:30-3:50 PM, LAKESHORE B,
175th ASA Meeting, Minneapolis.

Bats and Navy engineers both use sonar systems. But do they worry about the same design features?

To find out, we have done an exhaustive review of both kinds of sonar systems, poring over the spec sheets of about two dozen engineered sonars for a variety of applications and using computer models to predict 151 functional characteristics of bat biosonar systems spanning eight different biological families. Crunching the numbers revealed profound differences between the way engineers approach sonar and the way bats do.

The most important finding from this analysis is related to a parameter called beamwidth. Beamwidth is a measure of the angle over which the emitted sonic power or receiver sensitivity is distributed. A small beamwidth implies a focused emission, where the sound energy is – ideally – concentrated with laser-like precision. But the ability to generate such a narrow beam is limited by the sonar system’s size: the larger the emitter is relative to the wavelength it uses, the finer the beam it can produce. Reviewing the design of man-made sonars indicates that beamwidth has clearly been the holy grail of sonar engineering — and in fact, the beamwidth of these systems hews closely to their theoretical minima.


Some of the random emission baffles made from crumpled aluminum foil that served as a reference for the scatter seen in the bat beam width data.

But when it comes to beamwidth, tiny bats are at a significant disadvantage: even the largest bat ears are barely ten times the size of the animals’ ultrasonic wavelength, while engineered systems can exceed their wavelengths by 100 or 1000 times. Remarkably, our analysis showed that bats seem to disregard beamwidth entirely. In our data set, the bats’ beamwidth scattered widely towards larger values; the scatter was even larger than that for random cone shapes we created from crumpled aluminum foil. Clearly, the bats’ sonar systems are not optimized for beamwidth. But we know that they are incredible capable when it comes to navigating complex environments — which begs the question: what criteria are influencing their design?

We don’t know yet. But the bats’ superior performance demonstrates every night that giant sonar arrays with narrow beamwidths aren’t the only and certainly not the most efficient path to success: smaller, leaner solutions exist. And those solutions will be necessary for compact modern systems like autonomous underwater or aerial vehicles. To make sonar-based autonomy in natural environments a reality, engineers should let go of their fixation on size and look at the bats.

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