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Forest fire sensor inspired by nature

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They are what fire fighters have long been calling for: low-cost and highly sensitive infrared sensors that automatically monitor large forest areas and trigger an early warning in the event of fire. Zoologist at the University of Bonn have taken an important step towards this goal. They have constructed a forest fire sensor which could be produced more cheaply than commercially available infrared detectors, although it is not yet as sensitive. In identifying a principle of measurement previously unknown in nature and in technology, the scientists have taken the idea from a small insect: the jewel beetle, which lays its eggs in the wood of freshly burned trees, is said to be able to detect forest fires from a distance of 80 kilometres. The biologists now want to perform more tests on their little model to determine the limits of this new method of measurement.

This "fire beetle" loves burnt wood: immediately after woodland blazes the females fly in from far and wide, climb up the trees and lay their eggs in the smouldering bark. Since most other insect species tend to avoid freshly scorched areas, the jewel beetle larvae can develop with hardly any competition. The adult insects owe their sense of burning to clever sensory organs located on their underside. These organs are pits containing a large number of receptors ("sensilla") that are extremely responsive precisely to the infrared (IR) radiation that comes from a forest fire.

"Interestingly, these infrared feelers are modified mechanosensors," explains Bonn zoologist Dr. Helmut Schmitz, "and present us with a completely novel method of monitoring IR radiation." The finger-shaped protrusion of an individual mechanoreceptor is inserted in a tiny sphere made of "cuticula" the same material that forms an insect's armour. The cuticula sphere surrounds the pressure-sensitive "finger
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Contact: Dr. Helmut Schmitz
h.schmitz@uni-bonn.de
49-228-73-2071
University of Bonn
28-Jul-2004


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