Scientists in Scotland hope to mimic bat radar to locate and identify tumours hidden deep inside the body.
The technique mimics the way bats recognise objects
The University of Strathclyde team are developing a diagnostic device that employs the same technique used by some animals to recognise objects.
Bats navigate and hunt insect prey by sending out pulses of sound and listening to the reflected echoes.
The team is looking at using the same principle to identify hidden tumours with ultrasound.
According to a report in The Engineer magazine, the research is based on the way that bats, like dolphins and whales, have a sophisticated ability to tailor their ultrasound signals to individual targets.
These "acoustic codes" are used to identify different kinds of object.
A bat, for instance, might emit an ultrasound squeak that is specifically coded for prey.
Its echo tells the bat it has detected a flying insect, rather than a falling leaf.
Professor Gordon Hayward, who is heading the research, said: "Bats, dolphins and whales use complex acoustic waveforms for object identification and navigation."
His team of engineers are working with mathematicians to come up with acoustic codes for a wide variety of targets, including cancer cells.
The researchers hope to complete their work in the next three years.
The system could also have military applications, such as the detection and removal of underwater mines.
"With improved image capability, you could envisage a mine hunter locating a mine, then classifying it and sending a small robotic vehicle to dispose of it," Prof Hayward said.
The team is collaborating with US researchers from the universities of Virginia and Southern California, where ultrasound has already been used to create images at the cellular level.