May 13, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Bioneers Update: International Conference Held on Animal-Inspired Design

Georgia Tech came out with a press release about progress at their Center for Biologically Inspired Design (CBID) that opened last year (see 10/29/2005).  At a two-day conference May 11-12, international representatives from 20 institutions shared their inspirations on how nature can “help them solve some of the most complex problems of the day,” just as it has inspired poets, artists and musicians.
    Though evolution by natural selection is often assumed as the mechanism by which animals solved their design problems, the main thing evolving at CBID is “the belief that every animal must solve a particular problem to survive, so every animal embodies a design solution for a particular problem.”  The assumption that scientists are mining “millions of years of knowledge embedded in the DNA of each creature” does not appear to be essential for the scientists’ own work, which is really reverse engineering the design that is observed in current-day living creatures.

While scientists, like Leonardo DaVinci, looked to nature for inspiration centuries ago, biomimetics has recently caught on as a hot area of research at universities across the country.  Last year, Georgia Tech launched the Center for Biologically Inspired Design (CBID) as a way to encourage more of the interdisciplinary research that was already taking place among research groups.  Now, the center boasts 20 members comprised of researchers from various fields of engineering, biology, chemistry, psychology, applied physiology and architecture.

The press release mentions that UC Berkeley, U of Illinois, Caltech, and Case Western will be sharing results of their research.  In addition, international scientists from U of Toronto (Canada), Max Planck Institute (Germany) and Shandong University (China) are sharing their work in progress.  Here are examples coming out of this new kind of research:

  • Worm brains:  How tiny worms express genes might yield brain-inspired sensors.
  • Cat balance:  Learning from cats and frogs (yes, frogs) and the way their muscles produce balance might yield better prosthetic devices for the handicapped.
  • Fish teeth:  Fish jaws can help us better understand the mechanical properties of jaws and teeth under stress.
  • Spider silk:  Spider web studies are improving elasticity of artificial materials.
  • Butterfly wing structure:  The arrangement of butterfly scales looks promising for structural patterning.
  • Gecko glue:  The dry adhesive properties of gecko hairs are inspiring new artificial adhesives.
  • Diatom strength:  Patterns and processes in the construction of diatom shells help nanotechnologists build reinforced, shatterproof glass and porcelain.

And that’s just for starters.  “Other researchers will present research on the propulsive systems used in fish fins, jellyfish jets, insect legs and snake undulations, along with various ways to produce and coordinate these motions,” the press release ends.  The biosphere’s the limit.

Q: How did the Animal Plan It?  A: Not by watching the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Channel, but through the Discovery Channel of its own built-in Design Network.
    The evolution talk in these biomimetics stories (when it occurs at all) is, as Phillip Skell phrases it, “brought in, after the breakthroughs, as an interesting narrative gloss” (02/28/2006).  What is really inspiring this explosion in productive research?  It’s the D word: biological design.  Once the researchers realize that the Charlie mumbo jumbo is only a bad habit, a traditional password in scientific circles that has lost its authority, a holy undergarment that only itches and gets in the way, productivity will be liberated in this exciting field.  Pretty soon the handicapped may be leaping over tall buildings like Superman and you may be scaling buildings like Spiderman.  Go, Bioneers!

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