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The Intelligence of Biomimicry in Engineering Design

Biomimicry is an innovation technique that draws inspiration from the natural world to create sustainable solutions by emulating natures tried and tested methods. As our world becomes more advanced and we face ever increasing challenges, from climate change to crippling traffic; how has the natural world managed to survive since life first arose 3.8 billion years ago? As we strive for more technological breakthroughs how can this natural world influence us and provide solutions to our problems? In the past we have taken advantage of the natural world to create highly effective technologies. For example, sonar was developed in the early 1900s – this has been used in the natural world for thousands of years by creatures such as bats and dolphins. Some other fascinating examples of biomimicry include:

Burdock Burrs and Velcro

In 1941 while taking his dog for a walk through the woods, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral was struck with an idea. Could the burrs from the burdock plant that stuck to both his clothing and his dog, lend itself to something else? Nearly 8 years later Velcro was born, this hook and loop fastener quickly took over the world and to this day we are still finding new applications for it.

Whale Fins and Turbine Blades

Despite the humpback whale being between 40 and 50-foot-long, they are surprisingly agile creatures and able to turn in tight circles. This is due to the shape of their flippers which feature large and irregular bumps. These bumps actually allow the humpback to keep their ‘grip’ on the water at sharper angles, which results in an 8% increase in lift and a 32% decrease in drag. This has been transferred into the blades of wind turbines allowing them to generate more energy at lower wind speeds enabling them to be more effective. This could also have other applications such as the wings of aeroplanes and the blades of a helicopters.

Quadrupeds and Robots

Quadrupeds (four legged animals) are able to walk over extreme terrains with ease, this is due to their four contact points with the ground – so how could this be transferred to the world of robotics? Boston Dynamics used this influence to create the ‘BigDog’ a robot capable of walking in snow and water and carry a 300 pound load. The company also drew influence from Cheetahs in order to beat the land speed record for a legged robot in 2012. Creating a robot capable of running at speeds of 29 miles per hour, which is slightly faster that the fastest man on earth Usain Bolt.

Fish, Ants and Traffic

With the recent advancements in driverless cars we take a step closer to a driverless future, this could also mean a traffic-less future. As cars become smarter so would the traffic that we all hate. This could be inspired by schools of fish who utilise each other to flow more effectively through the water. This could allow both a reduction in static traffic as well as a more effective travel. Ants also have a unique approach to travel, they instinctively travel in a certain way to maximise their productivity and give priority to ants already carrying a load. And ants with no load returning to the colony gave way to the load bearing ants, instead of one or two individuals overtaking their slower counter parts. Under this system the amount of accidents would decrease and travel would become more efficient.

Bone Structure and the Eiffel Tower

When you think of Paris what is one of your first thoughts? The Louvre? The Notre Dame cathedral? How about the Eiffel tower? This structure has become synonymous with the city of love yet at the time of construction the tower was hated, described as a “truly tragic street lamp” and a “belfry skeleton”. The man behind the tower had used bones as one of his main influences, allowing him to create an extraordinarily light structure capable of withstanding strong winds while using the bare minimum of materials. For example, if you melted all the iron from the structure it would fill its square base and stand at a mere 6cm tall. The Eiffel Tower isn’t the only structure or product to be influenced by bone structure, companies such as airbus are combining bone structure and 3d printing to reduce the weight of structural components while maintaining structural strength, creating parts they couldn’t make using traditional methods. These changes are allowing them to make savings in overall weight as well as fuel economy.

All of these examples show that although we may see ourselves as top of the food chain we still have a lot to learn from the nature around us, and that these small feats could be applied to the world of engineering in order to help advance our own technologies.