How nature inspired Toposens cutting edge ultrasonic sensors

Jon Hall

20th May 2022

Echolocation in bats inspired the Toposens 3D ultrasonic sensor

A sophisticated, powerful innovator, nature has been engaged in rigorous research and development for more than 3.8 billion years.  Through meticulous observation and study of nature’s projects, humans have developed innovative technologies, such as taking inspiration from the aerodynamic form of birds when designing aircraft, or mimicking mosquitos with hypodermic needles.

Another example is studying echolocation in bats to inform the development of ultrasonic echolocation technology.

Toposens are taking echolocation to new heights by building the world’s first 3D ultrasonic echolocation sensor – its proprietary sensing and detecting technology enables next-level safety for industrial robotic and automotive applications.

We’ll take a look at the evolution of ultrasonic technology from its advent to the present state-of-the-art 3D sensing technology, pioneered by Toposens

Adding a third dimension to ultrasonic sensing is a key advance in the technology as it enables the sensors to detect the most complex objects in 3D space, regardless of lighting conditions. This improves operational efficiency, reduces costs, and allows the safe use of AGVs in any working conditions.

Ultrasonic evolution

Echolocation in nature
How echolocation works in bats

From gigantic blue whales to microscopic insects, nature has found innovative solutions to support the survival of all shapes and sizes.  Humans have long been inspired by nature’s solutions, adopting these biological principles to improve multiple aspects of their lives.

Through this biologically inspired approach, or ’bionics’ – a portmanteau of biology and electronics –humans apply nature’s biological methods and systems to the study and design of engineering systems and technology.  

Toposens, pursuing the bionics method,  observed that ultrasound waves, which travel at frequencies above the audible spectrum for humans (~20 kHz), are used by many species such as bats, dolphins and whales in their everyday activities.

Italian biologist, Lazzaro Spallanzani first studied the use of sound by animals in 1794, through which he concluded that bats could navigate using sound rather than sight.  Spallanzani observed that bats emitted sound waves from their nose or mouth and that when the waves hit an object, an echo is produced. This echo bounces back to the bats’ ears, enabling them to determine the size, location, and shape of the object – echolocation. Bat echolocation sounds range from 9 kHz to 200 kHz.

Ultrasonic development

One of the earliest applications of ultrasonic sensing – of the manufactured variety – was In 1914, with a marine-based system for detecting icebergs. Fast forward to today and ultrasonic technology can be found in a host of applications, such as military, medical, manufacturing and automotive. These modern-day use cases include measuring distances, parking assistance, flow-rate measurement, level detection, and composition analysis.

Technological advances, such as smart machines and the Internet of Things (IoT), have given rise to a burgeoning application of ultrasonic sensors: object detection and ranging.  This is realised primarily with their integration into automated vehicles for guidance purposes.

Industry 4.0 and Intralogistics 4.0, and the increase in automation that they bring, have seen the increasing prevalence advent of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV). With the e-commerce market booming and continued challenges faced by the supply chain, the global AGV market is expected to grow from $4.02 billion (2021) to $8.66 billion (2027) with a projected CAGR of 8.9% from 2022 to 2030*, demonstrating the essential role AGVs play.

Ultrasonic sensors are a key component in the automation of autonomous robots, increasing safety, improving efficiency, and reducing costs.

Ultrasonic sensing in three dimensions

Toposens 3D ultrasonic point cloud
Toposens 3D ultrasonic point cloud featuring x, y and z axes

Up until recently, the echolocation prowess of bats, detecting multiple obstacles in real-time and in 3D space, had not been successfully replicated using ultrasonic technology. However, that is no longer the case. Following several years of research, Toposens has achieved a technological breakthrough by developing the world’s first 3D ultrasonic sensor, based on the principle of bionics, mimicking echolocation techniques found in nature.

Just like bats, Toposens 3D ultrasonic sensors detect multiple objects in real-time, in three-dimensional space.  With the aid of sophisticated software their sensors deliver robust, light tolerant, low cost, and precise, near-range data output in a point cloud on x, y, and z (3D) coordinates. This enables the reliable detection of even complex objects such as forklift forks.

These complex objects are often not detected reliably enough by 2D sensors, which are delivering x and y coordinates, but no z (vertical position) coordinate.

Introducing the Echo One

Toposens Echo One 3D ultrasonic sensor

As we know, bats are wild animals living in the great outdoors, hunting prey through echolocation in all sorts of weather and light conditions. Toposens mimic this ‘natural’ technology in an electronic sensing system, the Echo One, which can detect and range in the most challenging of conditions in true bat style (except for the hunting). This is due to its patented, IP67-certified design and sensing capabilities.

Echo One also reduces operating costs as one sensor can cover a large area, thanks to the ultra-wide opening angle of up to 180° in ultra-short range, offering a much larger Field-of-View (FoV) than other sensors. This in turn increases productivity and, most importantly, increases safety.

Just like bats have evolved to perfect their echolocation techniques, Toposens ultrasonic sensor technology has evolved and has now reached a stage where it provides next-level robotic safety for AGVs and autonomous platforms, adding another element of vision for safe, reliable navigation.

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