What is echolocation and can it help those who are blind navigate the world around them?

A team at Durham University have been investigating how sound might help people who are blind or partially sighted to navigate their way around. Credit: Durham University/Stock Shot

A team at Durham University have been investigating how sound might help people who are blind or partially sighted to navigate their way around.

They were looking into something called echolocation - it's known as nature’s own sonar system.

It works when an animal emits a sound that bounces off objects in the environment, returning echoes that provide information about the surrounding space.

Whales and bats use it, and earlier work has found that some people who blind may use a form of it - called 'click based echo location' (where people make a clicking sound) to judge spaces and improve their navigation skills.

Bats use echolocation to help navigate their way around their environment Credit: ITV

The study involved blind and sighted participants between 21 and 79 years of age who trained over the course of 10 weeks.

  • Blind participants also took part in a 3-month follow up survey assessing the effects of the training on their daily life.

  • Both sighted and blind people improved considerably on all measures.

  • In some cases sighted people even performed better than those who were blind.

  • All participants who were blind reported improved mobility, and 83% reported better independence and wellbeing.

  • Overall, the results suggest that the ability to learn click-based echolocation is not strongly limited by age or level of vision.

At the moment, click-based echolocation is not taught as part of mobility training possibly because some people are reluctant to make the 'clicks' in social environments.

However the results form this study at Durham University showed people were confident using it in social situations.