Drosophila thoracic mechanosensory bristles originate from cells that are singled out from 'proneural' groups of competent epithelial cells. Neural competence is restricted to individual sensory organ precursors (SOPs) by Delta/Notch-mediated 'lateral inhibition', whereas other cells in the proneural field adopt an epidermal fate. The precursors of the large macrochaetes differentiate separately from individual proneural clusters that comprise about 20-30 cells or as heterochronic pairs from groups of more than 100 cells, whereas the precursors of the small regularly spaced microchaetes emerge from even larger proneural fields. This indicates that lateral inhibition might act over several cell diameters; it was difficult to reconcile with the fact that the inhibitory ligand Delta is membrane-bound until the observation that SOPs frequently extend thin processes offered an attractive hypothesis. Here we show that the extension of these planar filopodia--a common attribute of wing imaginal disc cells--is promoted by Delta and that their experimental suppression reduces Notch signalling in distant cells and increases bristle density in large proneural groups, showing that these membrane specializations mediate long-range lateral inhibition.