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The Flies Have It

Binghamton engineering professor buzzes around insect ears to build a better hearing aid.

What is it about brilliant ideas and cocktail napkins? The first modern computer was conceived on the back of one, as was the original business plan for Southwest Airlines.

Ron Miles, a professor of mechanical engineering and an expert on acoustics, had his own back-of-the-napkin epiphany a few years ago when some backyard barbeque mall-talk turned to fly ears (that’s what you get for partying with biologists…).

Some of his wife’s friends from Cornell (Ron Hoy and Daniel Robert) were studying Ormia ochracea, a tiny parasitic fly that has the uncanny ability to locate its prey with a pair of highly-developed ears. Most flies wouldn’t recognize the buzz of their favorite snack if it was flapping right next to them, but the Ormia’s ears are coupled together, one closing as the other opens. This gives it an unrivaled acoustic sense of direction.

Miles’ own ears tend to perk up when the conversation turns to acoustics and vibrations. When he heard the Cornell guys describe Ormia’s hyper-hearing ability, he gladly offered to help study these unusual ears. After working with them to explain the mechanism behind the Ormia’s hyper-hearing, his mechanical engineer’s mind immediately wondered how this could be applied to improving hearing aids.  

“People don’t like hearing aids. They are expensive, uncomfortable, and they expect them to work like glasses — completely fixing the problem just by putting them on,” says Miles. “But that’s not how they work, so people are clamoring for anything that will make their situation better. This technology can help improve it dramatically.”

The problem with most hearing aids is that they’re omni-directional, meaning they pick up sounds from all directions at once. In a restaurant or crowded public space, background noise makes conversation nearly impossible.

With the help of millions of dollars in funding from the National Institutes of Health, Miles and his collaborators have used Ormia’s ears to create powerful, miniature directional microphones that cut through background noise like a knife. He recently patented three of his most marketable inventions, all of which he hopes will be incorporated into mass produced hearing aids within a few years.  

Miles’ research has garnered several University awards, but the two he’s most proud of are the University and Chancellor's Awards for Excellence in Teaching. Apparently, between the lab and his busy party schedule, he still has time to be a world-class teacher.

Find out more about Ron Miles and the exciting work of his colleagues in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

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Last Updated: 6/17/09