Modern day hearing aids have come a long way; existing models are highly effective and come with incredible digital functions, such as wifi connectivity, that radically improve a person’s ability to hear along with their overall quality of life.

But there is still room for improvement.

Specifically, in some instances hearing aids have some challenges with two things:

  1. Locating the source of sound
  2. Eliminating background noise

But that may soon change, as the most recent research in hearing aid design is being guided from a surprising source: the world of insects.

Why insects hold the answer to improved hearing aids

Both mammals and insects have the same problem related to hearing: the transformation and amplification of sound waves into information the brain can use. What researchers are identifying is that the system insects use to solve this problem is in ways more proficient than our own.

The organs of hearing in an insect are smaller and more sensitive to a larger range of frequencies, allowing the insect to recognize sounds humans cannot hear. Insects also can recognize the directionality and distance of sound in ways more precise than the human ear.

Hearing aid design has commonly been guided by the way humans hear, and hearing aids have tended to offer straightforward amplification of incoming sound and transmission to the middle ear. But scientists are now asking a different question.

Finding inspiration from the natural world, they’re inquiring how nature—and its hundreds of millions of years of evolution—has attempted to solve the problem of sensing and perceiving sound. By analyzing the hearing mechanism of different insects, such as flies, grasshoppers, and butterflies, scientists can borrow the best from each to design a completely new mechanism that can be used in the design of new and improved miniature microphones.

Insect-inspired miniature directional microphones

Researchers from University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and the MRC/CSO Institute for Hearing Research (IHR) at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, will be evaluating hearing aids outfitted with a unique type of miniature microphone inspired by insects.

The hope is that the new hearing aids will achieve three things:

  1. More energy-efficient microphones and electronics that will eventually lead to smaller hearing aids, lower power usage, and longer battery life.
  2. The capability to more accurately locate the source and distance of sound.
  3. The ability to focus on specific sounds while wiping out background noise.

Researchers will also be testing 3D printing techniques to improve the design and ergonomics of the new hearing aids.

The future of hearing aids

For the majority of their history, hearing aids have been produced with the human hearing mechanism in mind, in an effort to reconstruct the normal human hearing experience. Now, by asking a different set of questions, researchers are establishing a new set of goals. Instead of attempting to RESTORE normal human hearing, perhaps they can AUGMENT it.