Forest fire sensor inspired by nature

" like a clamp. "Now, our jewel beetle's cuticula is particular good at absorbing thermal radiation with a wavelength of about three micrometers exactly the radiation that is typically emitted by a fierce forest fire. So when a fire occurs the sphere heats up, expands and, in this way, directly stimulates the mechanoreceptor," says the research scientist. Since the atmosphere is pervious to infrared at these wavelengths, the insects can identify potential breeding grounds from a long distance.

Assisted by his doctoral candidate Martin Mller, Schmitz has reconstructed the sensor using the simplest of components. Instead of the cuticula sphere, the replica uses a polyethylene platelet. Polyethylene absorbs infrared radiation in a similar spectrum as cuticula and also expands in response. This expansion is measured by the scientists. "The whole thing already works quite well, although commercially available IR sensors are better by a factor of 100," says Schmitz, who is nevertheless convinced of that the system can be perfected: "With our simple prototype we are only at the beginning of what is possible." The zoologist is currently looking for industrial partners to work out the specifications of his sensor and mature the technology.

To determine where the limits of this monitoring principle lie he also wants to make precise measurements of his biological model. "There are indications in the literature that the jewel beetle has detected forest fires from distances of up to 80 kilometres; but the data has never been checked and therefore remains unsound." In any case, the beetle is only the starting point: "Our aim is to test all known infrared-sensitive animals to find out how sensitive their sense of thermal radiation is." However, this gift does not appear to be very common in the animal kingdom. Apart from three species of beetle, so far scientists only know of some snakes the pit viper and giant constrictor that have genuine IR-sensing organs.

Contact: Dr. Helmut Schmitz
University of Bonn

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