June 21, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Follow the Leader: Nature

Ever since biomimetics (the imitation of nature) gradually emerged around 2002 and really took off in 2005, it has not slowed down.  Over 90 previous entries in these pages have reported teams all over the world seeking out natural designs for ideas.  The reports have accelerated in recent years to the point where there is only space for short summaries that give a taste of the wide variety of engineering work taking inspiration from plants, animals, and even cells.  You yourself might inspire some inventor.  Here are a few more highlights from recent adventures in biomimetics.

  1. Hummbingbird drone:  Since 2007, DARPA scientists have tried to build a “nano air vehicle” modeled on the hummingbird, for use as a small field reconnaissance robot.  The team even modeled and painted their miniature Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle (UAV) to look like the real bird; it flies, however, upright instead of prone.  The noisy contraption has had numerous crashes but was ready enough to present to the press this year.  Live Science posted a story about it and included a 3-minute video clip of its development.
        This is just stage one of a wider program. “Having many tiny drones such as the Nano Hummingbird also calls for new nature-inspired capabilities such as insect vision and reflexes to avoid midair collisions,” the article ended.  “Part of that smaller drone future may very well include more flying robots based on birds, if engineers have mastered the tricky flight mechanics of the hummingbird.”  If they can get it to lay eggs, they’ll really be onto something.
  2. Plant origami:  The seed capsules of Delosperma know a trick: how to fold and unfold in response to the environment.  Like many other plants, Delosperma has moving parts from its tissues that expand or contract in response to temperature or humidity; when it rains, the capsule opens and the seeds find a new moist environment in which to grow. A team at Max Planck Institute has been studying this plant and seeing green.  According to PhysOrg, “the scientists are now keen to transfer this concept to a technology that could be used for example in biomedicine or architecture,” the article said.  Think of the possibilities: “The principle can also be transferred to materials that expand or contract in very different ways when the temperature changes: for example, an awning unfolding by itself over the patio when the sun becomes uncomfortably hot.”
  3. Gecko window washer:  Gecko feet were among the first big biomimetics stories.  A number of teams have worked on imitating the dry adhesion the lizards achieve with millions of nanoscopic hairs on their foot pads.  A new story on PhysOrg sports a video of a new model made in China that “uses water instead of hairs to make its amazing climbs up vertical surfaces.” They want to use it to wash windows.  While the team didn’t use the gecko’s dry adhesion mechanism in this case, the gecko still inspired the work.
  4. Leaf solar cell:  An “artificial leaf” capable of converting sunlight to hydrogen fuel is a step closer to reality, according to PhysOrg.  Two separate teams at MIT are seeing oxygen bubbles emerge from their device when put underwater and exposed to sunlight.  It’s still just a science project at this point, at least three years away from an engineering design.  If they can get it to taste good in salad, they’ll really have a reason to boast.
  5. Pterosaur aircraft:  The extinct flying reptiles known as pterosaurs had remarkable aerodynamics.  Mimicking their hardware, researchers from University of Florida and Texas Tech have modeled a “pterosaur-inspired aircraft” that reduces turning radius by 14%.  Their work was published in Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, according to the story on PhysOrg.  Since pterosaurs sported a variety of crests and shapes, there’s wide room for variable design.  And what might artificial pterosaurs be good for in modern times?  Try “search and rescue, damage assessment, surveillance, drug interdiction, border security, and communication” via unmanned aerial vehicles.  Imagine the skyline with UAVs looking like hummingbirds and pterosaurs together.
  6. Fruit fly monitor:  Isn’t it nice to see science get inspiring again?  The headline of an article on PhysOrg reads, “Inspired by insect intelligence.”  Researchers at Monash University were so inspired by a fruit fly study they decided to create wireless sensor networks (WSN) that employ some of the fly’s principles.  “When it comes to energy efficiency, fruit flies can teach us a lot,” Dr. Asad Khan said. “A fruit fly’s brain consumes only a few microwatts of power, and yet is still able to integrate sensory information, actions of flight, and control over relatively complex behaviour in order to survive.”  He added that computers are about a thousand times less efficient.  Using “bio-inspired computing,” the article said,  “Using this bio-inspired approach it may be possible to create infinitely scalable WSN that could include not just thousands, but millions of sensors,” Khan said.  One can hear the excitement in his voice about biomimetics when he celebrated his team’s “pioneering research into advanced computing technologies that, while currently untested, have the potential to transform how we monitor and manage just about anything, in ways we can scarcely imagine.”
  7. Bacteria fertilizer:  If you can’t imitate nature’s designs, maybe you can mass-produce it.  PhysOrg talked about how scientists at Scripps Institute are trying to recreate the genomic works of soil-dwelling bacteria that have the ability to fix nitrogen at ambient temperatures.  “Soil-dwelling bacteria of the genus Frankia have the potential to produce a multitude of natural products, including antibiotics, herbicides, pigments, anticancer agents, and other useful products,” the article said.
  8. Nuclear pore porthole:  Nanotechnology is big these days: trying to build structures so small they are measured in millionths and billionths of a meter.  Intrigued by how the nuclear pore complexes in cells act as gatekeepers for cargo going in and out of the nucleus, researchers at Delft University in the Netherlands have created an artificial nanopore that also has some ability to selectively permit some molecules and not others.  Science Daily discussed their “biomimetic nanopore” briefly.  The cell’s nuclear pore complex is a much more elaborate apparatus.
  9. DNA computer:  Computers of the future may look very different from the plastic-and-silicon models we use today.  Caltech biophysicists have been busy since the Center for Biologically Inspired Design was opened.  They’ve upped their record of creating a biological network using 74 DNA molecules into a processor that can solve square roots.  You can read how they did it on PhysOrg and the BBC News.  They’re still a long way from building a DNA computer, but good things take time.  What would be nirvana for the team?  “The dream is that synthetic biochemical circuits will one day achieve complexities comparable to life itself.
  10. Plant assembly:  Thinking about how plant leaves grow, European researchers are working out ways to get nanomaterials to self-organize.  “In nature, green leaves grow through a similar self-organizing process without any impetus from subordinate mechanisms,” an article on Science Daily says.  “The adoption of such principles to the manufacture of electronic components is a paradigm shift, a novelty.”  Employing this “mechanism observed in nature,” they are teaching carbon nanotubes and other parts to find their places automatically.
  11. Plant doctor:  Plants can’t go to the doctor; they have to deal with their pathogens on the spot.  We can learn a thing or two about how they cope, thought researchers at the Texas AgriLife Research Center, according to PhysOrg. In the article you can find the quoted phrase “evolutionary conserved immune responses” that plants employ to sense invaders and turn on the protections.  Of course, animals and humans have immune systems, too, but as one of the researchers said, “what we learn from them at the molecular level might help us understand animal pathogens better.”
  12. Dragonfly aircraft:  To nature lovers, dragonflies are a pleasant curiosity, especially when you see them hovering and mating in mid-air.  To biomimetics researchers, they hold the key to lightweight miniature aircraft.  Their paper-thin wings are braced by tubular struts that provide strength and flexibility and can adapt to the challenges of flight.  According to PhysOrg, researchers in China are eagerly measuring their specs, because, “Potentially, this research could inspire engineers to design self-adaptable and energy-saving flexible wings for micro aerial vehicles.”  The airspace is going to get crowded with robotic pterosaurs, hummingbirds and dragonflies.
  13. Cell laser:  In a case of what might be called reverse biomimetics, researchers in Massachusetts have taught a cell how to lase.  Packing green fluorescent proteins into a cell and putting it between tiny mirrors, they produced a microscopic cell laser, a report on the BBC News said.  Green fluorescent proteins, widely used in microbiology, were not invented by man; they were borrowed from glowing jellyfish.  New Scientist discussed this “living laser” at more length.  A human kidney cell was used in the experiment.  Some day this technique may allow cell imaging in unprecedented detail.
  14. Snake oil:  Gila monsters and snakes have gifts to give: peptides for health.  According to PhysOrg, the rush is on to imitate the peptides that have higher potency and lower toxicity than synthetic drugs.  The article began with this surprising set of questions: “Who would have thought that Gila monster saliva would be the inspiration for a blockbuster new drug for Type 2 diabetes? Or that medicines for chronic pain, heart attacks, high blood pressure and stroke would emerge from venom of the Magician's cone snail, the saw-scaled viper, the Brazilian lancehead snake and the Southeastern pygmy rattlesnake?”  This is no cowboy-era snake oil salesman; it is the promise of cutting edge, bio-inspired research.  Manufacturers are stepping up production as more and more useful peptides are discovered in formerly fearsome creatures.
  15. You-bot:  You are so special, robot designers want to copy you.  You have a body, a brain, and a mind.  Teaching robots to think like humans or animals and learn from their experiences as a big challenge, but scientists at HP’s Neuromorphic Lab are trying their best, reported Aisha Sohail (Boston University) at Live Science.  They are designing animats – robotic animals – with adaptive computer systems to “to learn how to navigate in its environment based on its inherent capabilities for responding to motivations, evaluating sensory data, and making intelligent decisions that are transformed into motor outputs.”
        Sohail, a new employee of the lab, described the challenges of pre-programming devices to respond like animals. Roomba, the vacuum robot many consumers own, is a primitive adaptive system, but she but looks ahead to when robots can tackle “more complex adaptive tasks such as intelligently interacting and caring for the elderly, autonomously exploring and collecting samples on an alien planet, and generally employing more humanoid behavior.”  With visions of HAL in the back of her mind, she said, “Future robots will not be programmed, but will be trained. The key is to educate them well!”
  16. You-app:  Never take for granted a remarkable ability you have: the ability to perceive faces and shapes from many angles and light conditions.  Inspired by that ability, a startup company has created an app for smart phones that takes pictures of products and analyzes them to find competitive pricing and locations for purchase.  According to PhysOrg, “The Cortexica's VisualSearch platform is inspired by human vision.
        Along that same theme, researchers at Purdue are trying to teach computers how to recognize 3-D shapes with the same ease people can.  Science Daily told how the team is impressed with how the eye and brain can process 3-dimensional objects without a pre-set number of segments.  “Humans can easily perceive 3-D shapes, but it's not so easy for a computer," a team member said. "We can easily separate an object like a hand into its segments – the palm and five fingers – a difficult operation for computers.”  Building on the mathematical work of Einstein and Fourier, they are trying to help computers accomplish this feat.

The overlap of biology and engineering is redrawing lines between scientific disciplines and opening up fresh new paradigms. One dramatic example involves the overlap of biology and quantum mechanics.  Philip Ball wrote about this in a Nature News article entitled, “Physics of Life: The Dawn of Quantum Biology.”  We used to think that the weird world of quantum mechanics was a world apart from everyday life.  “Or so everyone thought,” Ball wrote.  “But discoveries in recent years suggest that nature knows a few tricks that physicists don't: coherent quantum processes may well be ubiquitous in the natural world.”  Examples abound, from photosynthesis to bird navigation.  He quoted Seth Lloyd, who saith, “Biology has a knack for using what works.”  And what works for biology can work for inventors, who are finding clues from the birds and the cells about how to create a quantum computer. “Learning from nature is an idea as old as mythology,” he concluded, “— but until now, no one has imagined that the natural world has anything to teach us about the quantum world.”

In this world of bad news and Darwin bigotry, it’s nice to find some good news to report: useful products inspired by nature, promising a better life, showing the wisdom of the Creator, amazing us all with wonders around us, and returning academia to real science that is 100% Darwin-free.  The Darwin bigots will die off eventually.  Bioinspiration and bioengineering is science for the rest of us, who need a rest from intolerance and bad news.

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  • seeko says:

    This has got to be the best occupation of the future.  Copying is always easier than inventing. These choices show that there’s plenty of reward to get by copying.

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