August 27, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Beat the Competition with Natural Design

Want to engineer something right the first time and beat the competition?  Find out how life does it.

Better photocells:  The antenna in plants, called Photosystem I, has been the envy of solar engineers.  PhysOrg reports that a “semi-artificial leaf” photosystem designed by chemists and biologists at Ruhr-University Bochum incorporates the PS1 antennas from cyanobacteria.  With engineering tweaks, they got it to perform electron transfers an order of magnitude higher.

Better color vision:  Look to the retina, and build a working tri-color photosensor array if you can.  Rice University took up the challenge, and “created a CMOS-compatible, biomimetic color photodetector that directly responds to red, green and blue light in much the same way the human eye does.”  Biomimicry was “no accident,” the article states:  “The color photodetector resulted from a $6 million research program funded by the Office of Naval Research….”

Better camouflage:  It’s uncanny how octopuses and squid can match their skins to their surroundings almost instantly.  Inspired by that, engineers from America and China demonstrated “a complete set of materials, components, fabrication approaches, integration schemes, bioinspired designs, and coordinated operational modes for adaptive optoelectronic camouflage sheets.”  Their achievement is reported in PNAS, and summarized by Live SciencePhysOrg sees a cool party trick coming with the system.

Better joints:  “Engineering long-lasting joint lubrication by mimicking nature” is a headline on PhysOrg about work at Johns Hopkins to improve prosthetic devices.  “What I like about this concept is that we’re mimicking natural functions that are lost using synthetic materials,” one of the engineers said.

Better bionic liquids:  Turning lignin (the woody substance in plants) from bane to boon, “U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) have developed “bionic liquids” from lignin and hemicellulose,” reports another article on PhysOrg.  This is not so much biomimetics (imitating nature) as finding a new use for the by-products of biofuel production.  What are “bionic liquids”?  The Chief Science and Technology Officer at JBEI explains: “Our concept of bionic liquids opens the door to realizing a closed-loop process for future lignocellulosic biorefineries, and has far-reaching economic impacts for other ionic liquid-based process technologies that currently use ionic liquids synthesized from petroleum sources.”

Better synthetic proteins:  The Weizmann Institute explains why they’re happy to have created “artificial cells” (at least, synthetic processes for building desirable proteins):

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, but mimicking the intricate networks and dynamic interactions that are inherent to living cells is difficult to achieve outside the cell. Now, as published in Science, Weizmann Institute scientists have created an artificial, network-like cell system that is capable of reproducing the dynamic behavior of protein synthesis. This achievement is not only likely to help gain a deeper understanding of basic biological processes, but it may, in the future, pave the way toward controlling the synthesis of both naturally-occurring and synthetic proteins for a host of uses.

Better formation flight:  Make like a bird, and build planes that can fly better in formation.  The Georgia Tech Research Institute is up to 3 planes flying together, PhysOrg says.  It may take awhile for them to control half a million in tight formations with rapid turns like the starling stars in Flight: The Genius of Birds, but they claim the highest level yet of autonomous multiple-UAV formation flight.  The key to success, explains an embedded video, lies in the sensors and computers controlling the autopilot, and the communication between the drones.  Each plane needs to sense the outside world, with pre-programmed ability to achieve “situational awareness, situational understanding,” followed by the ability to respond.

Better bio-bots:  It’s cheating not to start a biomimetics project from scratch, but North Carolina State University is showing that sometimes there’s no substitute for the real thing.  They are learning how to control the flight muscles of living moths in order to use them as cyborg mini “biobots”for emergency response.  “By watching how the moth uses its wings to steer while in flight, and matching those movements with their corresponding electromyographic signals, we’re getting a much better understanding of how moths maneuver through the air,” the team lead said.

Better robot armies:  Now that the wizards at Harvard’s Wyss Center for Biologically Inspired Design have built Kilobot, can they speed it up?  Their array of a thousand small 2-D robots can march into formation to produce shapes, like a star or wrench shape, but it takes almost 12 hours to produce the letter K.  Live Science points out that nothing is left to chance:

This coordinated effort mimics the behavior of ants, bees and other insects that work together in huge numbers to build complex structures, such as colonies, bridges and rafts. But unlike bugs, these bots aren’t born team players. Researchers program each robot with advanced algorithms that enable it to move around on its own while simultaneously communicating with the other bots around it.

An embedded video shows how the kilobots move into position.  The desired pattern is given to each member in advance; other factors requiring planning, like error correction, are shown later in the video.

Better computers:  “The possibilities are nearly endless” for TrueNorth, a brain-inspired computer made by IBM and Cornell, PhysOrg says.  Unlike traditional computers, TrueNorth uses an array of 64×64 “neurosynaptic cores” that work like neurons work.  Amazing as it is, TrueNorth gives its hat tip to living brains, big and small:

Normal computers contain a handful of extremely complicated, extremely fast and extremely powerful chips (central processing units or CPUs).

Brains, on the other hand, work with a huge number of much simpler and slower neurons (brain cells). A bee brain contains about a million neurons and a human brain around 86 billion. But it’s the way these neurons work together that makes brains so clever.

Neuron-inspired computers will be able to do much more than traditional chips.  They will also integrate with robotics much more seamlessly.

Better coatings:  For whiter whites and brigher brights, make like a beetle.  Engineers at Cambridge University have been studying certain highly-reflective beetles for inspiration.  Particular arrangements of fibers at the nanoscopic scale in beetle wings are the secret to high reflectivity.  “The physical properties of the ultra-white scales on certain species of beetle could be used to make whiter paper, plastics and paints, while using far less material than is used in current manufacturing methods.”

Better evolution?  What could it possibly mean when scientists at the University of Leeds claim they are “mimicking natural evolution” to improve the diversity of drugs?  Surely they are not using blind, purposeless, unguided processes.  What they really mean is intelligent design: setting goals, then letting trial-and-error combinations find the ones that fit the design requirements.  So when they “took their inspiration from evolution in nature,” they misrepresented Darwinism, which has no goal.  In their conception of evolution, “organisms gradually evolved both the chemical structures and the methods to produce them over millennia because they were of benefit.”  To see why this is a misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution, see Evolution News & Views.

Whenever Darwinians plant their fly in the soup, it makes you want to spit.  Biomimetics is intelligent design: man’s feeble attempts to reverse engineer the designs that nature exhibits with superiority and finesse.  Keep Darwin out of it.


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