Writing about their project in The Engineer magazine, the researchers have revealed that they are trying to harness the same kind of ability to detect tumours by which bats, dolphins and whales tailor their ultrasound signals to identify different kinds of objects.
Bats emit "acoustic codes" that are specifically coded for prey. Its echo tells them that they have has detected a flying insect, rather than a falling leaf.
"Bats, dolphins and whales use complex acoustic waveforms for object identification and navigation," the BBC quoted Professor Gordon Hayward, who is heading the research, as saying.
His team is working on collaboration with mathematicians to develop acoustic codes for a wide variety of targets, including cancer cells. The researchers hope to complete their work in the next three years.
According to them, 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.
He and his colleagues have joined hands with researchers from the universities of Virginia and Southern California, where ultrasound has already been used to create images at the cellular level.