Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bat Radarless

The Associated Press wired a story this morning about a newly discovered bat fossil. The fossilized remains answered a scientific question: When did bats gain their radar-like ability to navigate and locate airborne insects at night?

The answer is: After they started flying – as is evident to paleobiologists from this 152-million-year-old fossil.

This is well-known among avionics companies, however. A distant forerunner of existing airborne systems such as the E-10A aircraft’s Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) was ordered and installed in relatively early models of the bat family only as far back as 45 or 50 million years ago, according to Johann Flogl, airborne systems program manager for Raytheon. “The fossil microbat, Palaeochiropteryx tupaiodon, from Germany’s Messel deposits is over 45 million years old – there is an obvious installation, in fact.”

Although early contracts are no longer available for inspection, installations for a number of models of the Vespertilionidae family have been going on for millions of years. No information about the value of the orders for early airborne electronic systems is available.

Current airborne radar systems have far surpassed bats’ echo-location models; modern offensive radar can track evasive cars and wagons through city streets, and simultaneously track low-flying cruise missiles. Bats, on the other hand, have “ceased to be an economic market for most multi-national companies today,” says an anonymous spokesman for the US Defense Consortium.

The very early Wyoming bat lacks the airframe structure necessary to support the emission of “squeaky sounds” and the reception of resulting echoes. “This would have prevented a retrofit program. Too bat for him,” jokes Flogl.

Photo: Royal Ontario Museum and Nature.

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