Time has been a witness to many incredible inventions and discoveries that have transformed human lives. However, when talking of technological advancements, we rarely refer to the source of their inspiration. You would be surprised to know that many technologies that we use in our day to day life have been inspired by Nature.
Wright Brothers’ idea of airplane was inspired by the flight of a pigeon. China showcased an excellent example of biomimicry in the 2008 Summer Olympics. Many mobile manufacturers have tried to mimic the human eye to create a perfect camera lens. These are just a few glimpses of technology created by biomimicry of the nature.
In this Friday Essentials, we are going to look at some technologies which have been inspired by the nature around us.
- Velcro –
It was invented by a Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral in 1941. The idea of making Velcro was inspired by burdock burrs. One day after returning from hunting in the Alps he noticed that his clothes and his dog’s fur were covered in burdock burrs.
By clinging to creatures that pass by, burdock spread seeds across great distances. Mestral studied burrs under microscope and discovered the simple hooks which allowed it to cling to loops in his socks and in his dog’s hair. After endless experiments for 10 years with hooks and loops of various materials, Mestral patented the new fabric known as Velcro.
- Gecko Skin –
Most of us are well aware about the Geckos ability to scale smooth walls and scamper upside-down across ceilings. The secret behind the gravity defying grip of gecko is the millions of microscopic hairs at the bottom of the toes, called setae. The attraction of each hair is very miniscule, but the net effect is powerful.
The hair cling to any surface using the Van der Waals force which functions at microscopic scales. The real trick behind making it reversible is you need to change the direction of the setae and the grip is broken instantly with no residues, no tearing and no necessary pressure.
Engineers have been able to reproduce setae from silicone and hence leading to invention of various gecko-skin technology. A future robot called LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot) with gecko-like feet can inspect and maintain the installations on the International Space Station.
- Whale Fin Wind-Turbine
A biologist, Frank Fish noticed bumps along the fins on a statue of a humpback whale in a Boston gift shop and assumed that the artist had made a mistake. But the artist was right, humpback whales have bumps running along the front edge instead of protruding from the back edge of the fins.
Considering the weight of Humpback whales, the creatures are surprisingly agile swimmers. Part of this prowess comes from the warty ridges, called tubercles which help them to cut through the water.
After careful studies on “Tubercle Effect”, Biology Professor Frank Fish of West Chester University discovered that by adding such bumps to turbine blades, drastically reduces the drag and noise, and thus increases speed with change in wind direction and power harness efficiency by 20%.
- Shark Skin –
Stagnant water leads to the development of algae, yet the beast like shark which moves slowly through oceans is remarkably clear of algae. That’s because of their unique skin, which is covered with microscopic patterns called dentricles. The dentricles constantly move in water which reduces the drag and keep microorganisms from hitching free rides.
NASA scientists developed a drag-reducing coating for ships and this helped Stars and Stripes win America’s Cup Sailing race in 1987. Other applications include assisting planes, boats and windmills to reduce drag and conserve energy.
- Bullet Train Kingfisher –
Japan keeps a check on acceptable noise pollution, since high-speed trains can literally give you headaches. The sound is particularly high when they emerge from the tunnels. Due to high-speed the air pressure builds up in waves and noise of the train emerges, which can produce a shot-gun like thunderclap heard for a quarter mile.
Japanese Engineer Eiji Nakatsu, in 1990 got the inspiration of redesigning the nose of the high-speed train from Kingfisher Bird’s Beak. The Kingfisher bird, a fish-eating fowl, barely creates a ripple when it dives into the water to find its meal.
The design of Shinkansen Bullet Train by Eiji Nakatsu had a 50-feet long steel nose like a kingfisher beak which solved the noise problem, improved aerodynamics using less power and enabled higher speed.
- Leggy Robots –
Driving through uneven terrains and mountainous regions is difficult with wheels but walking by legs to such places can be much easier. It is however, difficult for humans to go to some dangerous places like battlefields, region with extreme temperatures, rugged terrains of Mars and similar.
DARPA has developed a series of four-legged robots based on cheetahs to deliver supplies on a battlefield. NASA is also working on a six-legged robot which named, ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer). The leg of robot has wheels, which lets the robot roll when the path is good and when it senses the obstacles it can lock down the wheels and step neatly over.
- Hive Mind Grid –
Has anyone of you studied about electrical grid that we are using today? Has anyone of you closely observed the bees in a hive and their work? To add something to your knowledge the efficiency of the power grid has been enhanced when Regen Energy adapted the “swarm logic’ inspired by bees.
Though bees have limited brainpower, but they can instinctively sense the work that needs to be done and gets onto it. Initially the different parts of the power grid didn’t communicate to each other. Regen Energy turned this uncommunicative power-sucking appliances and machines into a network which could balance loads during pricey peak-power periods when the rates were high.
Instead of having a central system to redirect power loads, the company installed local controllers that communicate wirelessly with each other and figure out on their own where power needs to be supplied.
- Candy-Coated Vaccines –
A surprising inspiration from nature,Tardigrades, gave us a very promising technology for our medical field. Nature can’t make the dead alive, but surely can re-animate dead cells which is a characteristic feature of Tardigrades.
Tardigrades belong to the family of arthropods, which dry out for 120 years. This process is called Anhydrobiosis which protects the critter’s chemical machinery like DNA, RNA and proteins which are revived by water. They do this by coating their molecular machinery in sugar.
Several biotech companies are inspired by this feature of tardigrades and are adapting it to protect live vaccines so, they don’t need to be refrigerated. The vaccines are shrink wrapped in a glassy film of sugars to keep them effective for six months.
- Termite buildings –
Amongst so many technologies inspired by nature, the least expected was to find an inspiration in a mound of termites. African termites build their mounds very cleverly and the design ensures that the mound maintains a nearly constant temperature throughout the day.
Termites construct their mounds using a series of vents along the top and sides. Hot air blows from underground chambers through vents go out of the structure. Termites control the airflow by opening or blocking tunnels.
Architect Mick Pearce used this strategy when he designed the Eastgate Centre, an office building in Harare, Zimbabwe. The building stays cool without any air conditioning and also reduces energy consumption to 1/10th of a conventional building of the same size.
- Harvesting Desert Fog –
This is the other name given to the Namibian beetle because of its unique characteristics. These beetles live in the desert habitat and whenever the fog rolls into the area it raises its shell back into the air where bumps catch the water droplets and water runs down chutes toward its mouth.
Pak Kitae of the Seoul National University of Technology designed a “Dew Bank Bottle” which is an imitation of beetle’s water-collection system. Morning dew condenses on it and conveys it to a bottle, which has a drinking spout.
Subscribe to our newsletter to get more such technology related updates in your inbox.