November 30, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Biomimetics Is On a Roll

There’s a gold rush on: a rush to copy living technology.  Scientists have found that plants, animals and cells have the solutions to problems that will help us all, if we will just study them, imitate them, or harness them.

  1. Jellyfish pumps:  Need a flexible pump for medical use?  Look no further than the aquarium tank, where jellyfish have mastered the art of propulsion with soft material.  Science Daily reported on work at Caltech to study how jellyfish do it.  “Jellyfish at millimeter scales, for example, exploit the small layer of water that adheres to their surface as they move and use it as additional paddle at no extra cost,”  the article said.  “Further, a clever arrangement of multiple pacemakers within the jellyfish body allow for a reliable yet tunable pumping mechanism.”  One of the researchers “plans to use this practical understanding to help design a whole spectrum of flexible pumps that are optimized for different tasks and conditions.”
  2. Elephant trunks:  Getting robotic arms to act gracefully and gently has been a major challenge.  Imagine the pain of shaking hands with a typical robot.  Why not learn the secrets from an elephant, whose trunk can gently pick up a peanut out of a child’s hand?  That’s what Festo, a German company, did.  They created the “elephant’s trunk-inspired Bionic Handling Assistant,” reported New Scientist, which “is peppered with resistance sensors that limit its extension when it senses contact – potentially making it safe for anyone to use and interact with.”  A video clip shows the device doing a clumsy but encouraging imitation of an elephant trunk.
        The short article makes it clear this is not the only example of bio-inspiration going on in Germany:

    Despite its futuristic appearance, Festo’s isn’t the only odd robot arm in development.  A European-wide team has developed something similarly flexible – but here the inspiration came from an octopus’s limb.  Instead of pneumatics, the EU team wants to drive their arm with “electroactive polymers” – smart plastics that bend when a voltage is applied.
        Festo’s decision to seek inspiration from a lumbering mammal marks a departure: it has previously created the most graceful of robotic penguins, jellyfish and manta rays.
        And another German team has created the AirFish: an airship that wags its tail like a rainbow trout.

    Live Science also discussed cheerfully the new elephant-trunk robotic arm, but gave the credit to chance as the inventor: “‘Biomimicry,’ as this design and engineering aesthetic is called, draws inspiration from the biomechanical systems that the process of evolution has honed for millions of years, often resulting in startling insights over manmade artificial solutions.”

  3. Shark skin:  Want to reduce drag on swimsuits and ships’ hulls?  Make like a shark, said National Geographic News says.  Its “scaly hide serves as both a suit of armor and a means of streamlining movement,” researchers at the University of Alabama are finding.  Professor Amy Lang also gave credit to Darwin: “Overall, sharks’ 400 million years of evolution for strength and speed may someday inspire better designs for machines that are prone to drag, such as aircraft, Lang noted.”
  4. Shark sub.  The whale shark is the world’s biggest fish.  How does it keep all that mass afloat?  “Whale Sharks Use Geometry to Avoid Sinking,” reported Science Daily.  Marine biologists publishing in the British Ecological Society journal Functional Ecology found that the whale shark’s glide, that looks so natural, is really an “astonishing feat of mathematics and energy conservation.”  Adrian Gleiss from Swansea University noted, “oceanic animals not only have to consider their travel speed, but also how vertical movement will affect their energy expenditure, which changes the whole perspective.”
        Sensors placed on the giants showed that they can use their negative buoyancy to descend, but need to flap their tails when ascending; nevertheless, their motion “optimized the energetic cost of vertical movement,” the researchers found.  “This use of negative buoyancy may play a large part in oceanic sharks being able to locate and travel between scarce and unpredictable food sources efficiently.”  Although this article did not mention biomimetics, the principle sounds like something submarine designers could use.
  5. Cell rotors:  Another German team has succeeded in getting a three-blade structure in a hexagonal cage billionths of a meter across to rotate spontaneously.  “Nature itself provides the role model for such self-organizing systems,” a report on PhysOrg said, accompanied by a video clip that shows the nano-rotor in action.  The primitive device is a far cry from those found in living cells: “However, the coveted dream of using self-organization effects in such a way that nano machines [i.e., in the cell] assemble themselves is still a thing of the future.”  Presumably, progress will be made by intelligent design.
  6. Electrical engineering turns bioengineering:  Students at the University of Texas at Dallas are competing in contests to harness bacteria for useful purposes.  Since E. coli bacteria already have the toolkit for probing chemicals, the students employ synthetic biology techniques to make them do what they want – such as turning green when sensing toxins.  Story at PhysOrg.  An engineering prof said, “Synthetic biology borrows a lot of ideas from engineering and puts them in the context of biology.” 
  7. Got that glow:  Speaking of fluorescent proteins (retrieved from jellyfish), Vyv Salisbury, a biomedical researcher at University of West England, is excited about the possibilities of putting glowing bacteria to use.  They have “enormous future potential” to “produce exquisitely sensitive and versatile microbial biosensors,” PhysOrg reported, opening with the promise, “A professor from the University of the West of England will present her inaugural lecture on bioluminesence [sic] and give insight into how this natural phenomenon has been used to make biomarkers that are making exciting breakthroughs in several areas of health research.”
  8. Whale blades:  According to PhysOrg, “lessons learned from the ocean’s largest mammals has inspired United States Naval Academy researchers to tackle one of the serious challenges of this technology: the low velocity associated with many tidal flows and the difficulty of extracting useful energy from low speed flows using current designs.”  Enter the humpback whale, with its bumpy-edged fins.  Turns out that design improves performance: “We designed a novel blade modification for potential turbine performance improvement, which was inspired by humpback whale flippers, with the addition of tubercles, or bumps, to the leading edge of each blade,” announced Mark Murray, a Naval Academy engineering professor.  He showed that “the addition of biomimetically derived protuberances (technology that mimics nature) improved stall characteristics and aerodynamic performance.”
  9. Studying flight:  Four recent articles did not mention human applications yet, but showed how scientists are eagerly studying the flight capabilities of animals to gain understanding, with a subtle indication that human engineers can learn from them.  Students at Wright State in Ohio are studying dragonflies (New Scientist).  An engineer at Bristol University gained insights into pterodactyl flight (BBC News).  And the BBC News also posted half a dozen dazzling photos of flying fish.  PhysOrg spoke of scientists studying flying snakes.  You thought this one was going to be about birds, didn’t you?  That last article did mention another team proposing that “airplanes be designed more like birds.”

The excitement over biomimetics can be sensed by the conferences, journals and societies devoted to it, such as the Bioneers at Georgia Tech (10/29/2005) and the Information Science and Technology initiative at Caltech (06/5/2005).  PhysOrg reported on one such recent event: “The physicists, biologists and engineers were huddled around every available bar-height table in the Long Beach Convention Center, covering their tiny surfaces with laptops and notebooks.”  What did they come for? – “many of the scientists were gathered earlier this week at a fluid-dynamics conference to show how insights from the world of animals and plants might guide tomorrow’s technology — a burgeoning field known as bio-inspired engineering.
    Here’s a short list of the animals that were inspiring their design plans: flying snakes, sharks, birds, whales, hummingbirds, and jellyfish.  “These scientists from far-flung fields share a common conviction: that future engineering has a great deal to learn from the natural world.”  The article quoted a USC engineer who said, “The number of people who are developing, encouraging, thinking about biologically inspired designs is vastly more than it was five years ago, two years ago even.”
    A journal called Bioinspiration and Biomimetics published a special edition called “Bioinspired Flight” this month, said PhysOrg.  And it’s not just for the birds.  Scientists analyzed controlled falling and gliding by geckos, snakes and insects.  Bioengineering brings together engineers and biologists, who have typically lived in different academic worlds.  “Because biologists and engineers are typically trained quite differently, there is a gap between the understanding of natural flight of biologists and the engineer’s expertise in designing vehicles that function well,” David Lentink from Wageningen University said.  “In the middle however is a few pioneering engineers who are able to bridge both fields.”  The article includes three video clips, one of a falling gecko flipping over and landing on its feet like a cat, one of a test robotic fly, and an amazing series of snake flights showing how they can maneuver and even turn while gliding.
    The Biomimicry Institute is open for business with a website, newsletter, educational resources, and even a children’s music CD.  Why?  “Biomimicry is the science and art of emulating Nature’s best biological ideas to solve human problems,” the website explains on its front page.  “Non-toxic adhesives inspired by geckos, energy efficient buildings inspired by termite mounds, and resistance-free antibiotics inspired by red seaweed are examples of biomimicry happening today — and none too soon.  Humans may have a long way to go towards living sustainably on this planet, but 10-30 million species with time-tested genius to help us get there.”  Another of their websites, AskNature.org, provides a “database of nature’s strategies” with 1360 entries so far.
    Not everybody is inspired to the same degree.  The PhysOrg article about the Long Beach convention quoted USC engineer Geoffrey Spedding cautioning, “Just because it exists in nature doesn’t mean it’s an optimum … the designs that come through evolution are just good enough to survive, that’s all,” adding that “Nature has yet to come up with a decent wheel.”

What is Spedding talking about?  Hasn’t he seen a bacterial flagellum?  It’s a more efficient wheel than anything man ever invented.  And his logic is bad.  Like a Darwinian, he has to see everything in terms of mere survival.  The world has a great deal of “useless beauty” that goes beyond mere survival.  Look at the coloration on birds and insects, the patterning on mammal fur, and the shapes and colors of flowers.  Survival does not require these things, or every bird, mammal, and flower would be so decorated.  Beauty and elegance are not incompatible with survival; they provide frosting on the cake, making this a world of incredible variety and beauty.  Even evolutionary scientists can recognize that animals are “overengineered” for the functions they require for survival (03/23/2004).
    Biomimetics has the potential to make Darwinism irrelevant, and bring together both creationists and evolutionists for the common goal of improving human life through understanding and imitation of natural design.  Darwin need not have anything to do with it.  Evolutionary theory could be a harmless sideshow, if not a distraction, to the goals of biomimicry.
    Two alarming subtexts are tainting the biomimetics movement, however.  One is that Darwinists are trying to co-opt the movement by forcing their worldview onto it: e.g.,

  • “…the designs that come through evolution are just good enough to survive, that’s all,” (PhysOrg)
  • “…the biomechanical systems that the process of evolution has honed for millions of years” (Live Science)
  • “…sharks’ 400 million years of evolution for strength and speed may someday inspire better designs for machines” (National Geographic)
  • “…Scientists in the US and Canada are studying how flying fish evolved the enlarged paired fins…” (BBC News)
  • After 3.8 billion years of evolution, nature has learned what works and what lasts” (Biomimicry Institute)

Hopefully many will discern that oil and water mix better than biomimetics and Darwinism.  How long can the public endure the halitosis that billions of years of chance accidents yielded engineering marvels that our goal-oriented, purposeful human intelligence cannot duplicate?  Remember, too, that as good as the robotic flexible arm or mechanical insect perform, artificial biomimics cannot reproduce themselves, repair themselves, or proofread themselves.  Human technology looks pathetic by comparison.  Darwinists insert their rhetoric into the biomimetics adventure at their peril.
    A second and more worrisome trend is a kind of new-age mysticism arising about nature.  This can be seen at the Biomimicry Institute where Nature is capitalized, as in, “How would Nature heat and cool a home?”  Even though hardcore atheist evolutionists like E. O. Wilson are on its advisory board, the Biomimicry Institute risks a return to Pocahontas-style nature worship with lines like, “Humans may have a long way to go towards living sustainably on this planet, but 10-30 million species with time-tested genius to [sic] help us get there.”  Their children’s CD is labeled “Ask the planet,” as if we are to seek inner wisdom from the Earth goddess.
    It’s an alarming sign, but Bible-believing Christians can take heart at this in a backhanded way.  For one, it unmasks the secular evolutionists as the pantheist pagans they always were at heart.  For another, it fulfills Scripture.  Their behavior follows exactly what the Apostle Paul described in Romans 1, “For his [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!  Amen” (Romans 1:21-25).
    Nothing has changed since the old paganism except the sophistication of its ignorance.  Creationists and proponents of intelligent design can embrace biomimetics, but should be on guard against these trends that would distort it into Charlie worship or pagan Nature worship.  By contrast, engaging in diligent biomimetics research and design is one way to honor and serve our Creator, and to say, “Thank you, Lord.”

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