The engineers, from the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, say the new device could be used in a new generation of hypersensitive hearing aids that use intelligent microphones to select only those sounds or conversations that the wearer wants to hear.
Neal Hall, an assistant professor in the Cockrell School's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and his team of graduate students, drew their inspiration from pioneering work by Ronald Miles at Binghamton University, NY, and Ronald Hoy at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
They were the first to describe the technological potential of emulating the super-hearing mechanism of the yellow-colored parasitoid flyOrmia ochracea, which stalks and locates male field crickets from their chirps and lays live larvae on and around them.
The fly can locate the cricket with remarkable accuracy because it has a sophisticated sound processing mechanism that determines the direction of the sound within an angle of 2 degrees.
Using the fly's super-evolved hearing structure as a model, Prof. Hall and colleagues made a tiny pressure-sensing device out of silicon. With a span of only 2 mm, the device is nearly the same size as the fly's hearing organ.
Unlike many insects, the reason humans and other mammals can pinpoint the source of a sound is because we have a much larger distance between our ears. The sound processing mechanism in our brains uses the time difference in the arrival of the sound at the two ears to locate the source.
To replicate the fly's hearing mechanism, the team made a flexible beam incorporating piezoelectric materials that allowed them to use the flexing and rotation of the beam as a way to measure sound pressure and pressure gradient at the same time.
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