Biomimicry: technology inspired by nature

| 12th March 2019
Octopus
Flickr
Biomimicry in tech and engineering demonstrates how much we have to learn from nature and natural systems.

-

Some of the most famous inventions and breakthroughs in design and technology have been inspired by nature. 

This is called biomimicry: but really, what is it? Biomimicry - or biomimetics - is the examination of nature, its systems, its procedures, processes and elements to then take inspiration for new inventions that help humans solve problems in which they are facing.

The goal is that humans create far more sustainable designs in order to both progress with innovation whilst having the future of the planet in mind.  

Biomimetic design

Nature has been continuously evolving for the past 3.5 billion years - with all that right on our doorstep, it's no surprise that humans are increasingly looking to the environment for technological inspiration.

Humans are continually looking for new ways to improve already-invented designs and, surprisingly, nature is helping humans construct better designs than ever before. The approach to human innovation through mimicking nature is called biomimetic design and has been the fundamental basis of many inventions, including buildings and cars.

RS Components has researched how nature is inspiring technologies that will affect our everyday lives - take a look at the infographic here.

With that said, researchers have formulated a mathematical solution that can help minimise noise and maximise aerodynamics in design to help wind turbines and air vehicles. Not only has this technology been inspired by owl feathers, but “it can actually be used for any application with a blade turning through the air”.

Similarly,  scientists from Salk and University of California San Diego have discovered that a fruit fly brain has the elegance and efficient innovative methods of performing similarity searches - could they be the search engines of the future? The fruit fly’s brain could possibly help design computer algorithms very soon.

Innovative technology

There are some inventions that we thought we’d never see - camouflaging material and skin being one of them. However, using octopus skin as an inspiration, engineers at Cornell University have reported on their invention of stretchable surfaces with 3D texture morphing a synthetic “camouflaging skin” - this is inspired by modelling the real thing in octopus and cuttlefish.

Similar to the above, scientists have used gecko skin as an inspiration for one of their inventions. Gecko’s gravity-defying grip is due to their rows on tiny hairs (setae) on their toes. Gecko-skin technology has been used frequently by scientists over the past few years, so we can only expect to see more nature-inspired technology in the future.

Nature isn’t just being used for tech though. EDAG - a German car company, has modelled its new cars off a turtle’s shell. So far, the design is just a potential idea but has recently been brought to life using a 3D printer, designed to improve passenger safety.

We very often see streamlined trains - for example, Virgin and Bullet Trains, but now there is a new invention that has been inspired by the kingfisher bird. The birds dive headfirst into the water to hunt their prey, but there is no splash due to their streamlined beaks.

The new trains have been modelled after the long narrow kingfisher beak in order to protect the train’s structural integrity. As well as the trains looking far more futuristic and innovative, they are quieter and faster which, in turn, helped them used less electricity.     

Energy efficiency

Solar panels have increased by 168 percent over a seven-year period according to the solar job census, and now scientists are looking at ways to improve this renewable energy to ensure it is being used as efficiently as possible.

Scientists are currently looking to imitate the micro-lenses in the compound eye of an insect, as it will enable them to pack small solar cells together and improve the amount of energy generated.

Another animal that has been used as inspiration for a new invention and that has become very close to humans, includes the household cat - researchers at Harvard University recently published a study in the journal PNAS, describing the structure of a cat’s tongue. This has resulted in a possible commercial product called the Tongue-Inspired Grooming Brush.

Moving onto more, Velcro: an everyday invention that many people use - mostly children who are learning the fundamental basics of tying shoelaces, doing up jackets and general connecting to things together.

You probably don’t think much about velcro, but in actual fact, it was invented by a Swiss called George de Mestral. Mestral was walking his dog one day when he noticed many burrs stuck to his sock whilst walking through the fields. Burrs are the seeds from burdock plants that have tiny hooks on the ends that enable them to catch fabrics, fur and other catching materials - this is where the idea spurred from for velcro.

Morphing wing

One invention that often gets ignored when discussing biomimicry is the aeroplane. Leonardo da Vinci designed a flying machine that flapped its wings and had a tail - a lot like a bird, and since then, people improved on that design, creating the aeroplane wing that still works similarly to birds.

Looking toward the future, scientists and professors are looking to develop a prototype for a “morphing wing” that moves dependent on weather conditions and situation of the plane  - whilst this invention clearly is inspired by birds, one researcher is looking to make aeroplanes mimic frogs in the way they leap to certain locations. What will the future of aeroplanes look like?       

Nature continues to adapt and evolve - as will technology. This is because inspiration can be found almost everywhere. It is clear to see that when it comes to biomimicry, we are only limited to how much humans are willing to explore the world and look for further inspiration - the possibilities are endless.

Janine Benyus, the Biomimicry 3.8 Co-Founder believes “biomimicry ushers in an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from her. This shift from learning about nature to learning from nature requires a new method of inquiry.”

For more information on how nature has inspired technology and the types of inventions we can expect to see in the near future, visit this infographic done by RS Components.

This Author 

Alexandra Berger is a senior marketing leader with over eighteen years’ experience across an international business-to-business environment. She is senior vice president for RS Components. Alexandra’s broad experience has seen her lead digital transformation programmes, brand development initiatives and customer experience programmes. 

Image: John Turnbull, Flickr

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here