November 11, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Biological Systems Provide Infinite Design Inspiration

It’s not likely engineers and biologists will run out of inspiration from biology anytime soon.  The source is infinite.

We start with a quote from a commentary in PNAS by Michael H. Bartl about work on “butterfly inspired photonics” that applies to all bio-inspired research.  The word “design” is key to the story:

Amazing FactsBiological systems have been an infinite reservoir of inspiration ever since humans started to develop tools and machinery. Just as early scientists and engineers attempted to mimic birds and fish in the development of flying machines and submarines, today, new technologies find their inspiration from biology, such as gecko feet, antireflective eye lenses, iridescent insects, and water-repellant surfaces. Incorporating biological systems and concepts into technological design can happen in several ways: inspiration, mimicking, and replication. In the latter, entire organisms or body parts are directly used, and their structural features are replicated into another compound. Examples include 3D photonic crystals from iridescent beetle scales or antireflective microlens arrays from insect eyes. In contrast, in bioinspiration and biomimicry, a biological function or activity—rather than the organism itself—is converted into an artificial, human-made material or device. In PNAS, England et al. report an optical micrograting array inspired by a photonic structure found in iridescently colored butterfly wings. The authors demonstrate a micrograting array that not only mimics the unique diffraction properties of the biological structure with reversed color-order sequence, but also can be designed to tune these optical properties.

Here’s more news about some of the latest applications coming out of biomimetics research.  The first examples show that robotics is especially keen on biological solutions.

Inchworm robot “Robot that moves like an inchworm could go places other robots can’t” (PhysOrg).  Made in South Korea, it’s “simple, lightweight, and quiet.”  It may be useful for “rescue and reconnaissance missions, but also as a potential material for smart structures and wearable devices.”

Muscle bots : “‘Muscles’ Triggered by Electricity Could Power Tiny Robots” (Live Science). Fibers that expand and contract like muscles could lead to electronics that could automatically rewire themselves—even though the force in the  artificial material is 1,000 times weaker than the power of human muscle.

Downhill gecko robots : “What Goes Up Must Come Down: Biologists at UC Riverside show that geckos alter foot orientation during downhill locomotion” (UC Riverside). No one has really figured out how geckos move downhill till these scientists studied it.  They found that the forelimbs act as brakes, the hind limbs as stabilizers.  “The research has applications in robotics, specifically in how robots can be designed to move up and down complicated surfaces.”  Incidentally, geckos on the Australasia side of the Wallace Line grow about twice as big, PhysOrg reports, but scientists as yet do not know why, other than differences in predators.

Bird bots :  “Running robots of future may learn from world’s best two-legged runners: birds” (Oregon State U). “Although birds are designed primarily for flight, scientists have learned that species that predominately live on land and scurry around on the ground are also some of the most sophisticated runners of any two-legged land animals.”  They’re even better than humans at leaping over obstacles without losing their speed or focus.  “The running robots of the future are going to look a lot less robotic,” robotics expert Jonathan Hurst said. “They will be more fluid, like the biological systems in nature. We’re not necessarily trying to copy animals, but we do want to match their capabilities.”

Sparkling silver fish LED reflectors :  “Mechanism behind nature’s sparkles revealed” (BBC News). The silvery colors seen in schools of sardines and herring are due to disordered arrays of nanoscopic crystals in the scales that exploit light.  This is also true in unrelated species, like beetles, butterfly wings and birds.  Dr. Nicholas Roberts likes looking at nature for ideas we  never thought of; this is why he finds science exciting.  “He added that the structures could be copied to produce highly reflective surfaces to, for example, manufacture reflectors to make LED lights more efficient.”

Why sea turtles are plump : “Plump turtles swim better: First models of swimming animals” (University of Wisconsin-Madison).  Modeling a biological system often precedes application.  Engineers at U of Wisconsin were surprised to find that plump turtles swam better than lean ones.  “We can literally design animals now and ask how are they going to function, just like a car or a rocket ship,” researcher Warren Porter said.

Bird feather anti-turbulence : “Feathers in flight inspire anti-turbulence technology” (RMIT University).  Inspiration from feathers has “great potential for all sizes of aircraft and could not only reduce the effects of turbulence on passengers but also reduce loads on plane wings, leading to lower fatigue and hence longer life.”

Ant electronics : “Ant behavior might shed insight on problems facing electronics design” (PhysOrg). “The swarm-intelligent framework at the heart of [Michael] Hsiao’s approach [at Virginia Tech] is based on long-term research he has conducted using algorithms that simulate the methods used by ant colonies to find the most efficient route to food sources.”

Beetle wing deployable structures : “Asymmetric hindwing foldings in rove beetles” (PNAS).  “Rove beetles are known to fold their wings in the most complicated and sophisticated ways that have right–left asymmetric patterns. This asymmetric folding can confer both high deployment capability and high storage efficiency, and therefore has a great deal of potential for engineering applications.”  Examples include “design possibilities for all deployable structures, from space structures to articles of daily use.”

Beetle anti-counterfeit ink : “Longhorn beetle inspires ink to fight counterfeiting” (PhysOrg). The longhorn beetle can shift its color from red to black and back again.  Inspired by this feat, Chinese researchers have designed “responsive colloidal photonic crystals” into ink that would make money difficult to counterfeit.  And it’s not just for cash: designing controllable, responsive optical properties “is of great promise for developing advanced responsive … devices such as anticounterfeiting devices, multifunctional microchips, sensor arrays, or dynamic displays.”

DNA cancer-fighting package : “Bio-inspired ‘nano-cocoons’ offer targeted drug delivery against cancer cells” (PhysOrg).  At U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Biomedical engineering researchers have developed a drug delivery system consisting of nanoscale “cocoons” made of DNA that target cancer cells and trick the cells into absorbing the cocoon before unleashing anticancer drugs.”

Parakeet drones : “Bird brains may help drones fly and avoid crashing” (PhysOrg). Starlings fly in formation, but so do budgerigars or budgies (what American consumers call parakeets). “Birds have a remarkable ability to fly through complex environments with incredible speed, rarely colliding.” That inspired tests with budgies in tunnels to see how they avoided objects. The study “has the potential for helping the design of navigation and guidance systems for autonomous drones – especially when you have a flock of delivery drones” like those Google and FedEx want to use to deliver packages to customers.  The article includes the famous video clip of a peregrine falcon at high speed and a goshawk navigating rapidly and flawlessly between trees in the forest.

Protein carbon capture : “Inspired by nature, scientists design protein-esque molecules to lock up carbon dioxide” (PhysOrg).  Seashells capture dissolved carbon dioxide in the water through the use of specialized proteins.  Engineers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are using rational design to make “peptoids” (highly stable protein-like molecules), then “are studying the ability of peptoids to assemble into porous materials and mimic protein membranes in filtering out desired targets, such as carbon dioxide.”

A-peeling food storage : “The Elixir of Life for Produce: Reducing waste by extending the life of produce” (National Geographic).  The Apeel Corporation is taking cues from the peelings of fruits and vegetables that reduce spoilage.  Keeping produce fresh twice as long would appeal to anyone with food in the frig.  With their new products Apeel, Edipeel and Florapeel coming to market, “Who says bioengineering isn’t romantic?” the article quips.

Amazing FactsDog bomb sniffers : “Billions Have Been Spent on Technology to Find IEDs, but Dogs Still Do It Better” (National Geographic). Here’s a nature feat that engineers have not been able to copy yet.  As you remember soldiers on Veteran’s Day, don’t forget their canine companions.  “These working dogs have saved countless soldiers’ lives—and helped prevent PTSD.”  (Note: PhysOrg reports that fruit flies are also good bomb sniffers.)

These are things the “Bioneers” have a jump on (see 10/29/05).  You’re missing out because you didn’t think of it first.  But don’t be dismayed; if there is truly an “infinite reservoir of inspiration” in biological systems, you can start looking around your yard right now for a creature to learn about.  Then find out how it solved a real world problem, figure out the principles, create an invention, obtain a patent, start a company, and make a lot of money – while helping humanity.  Did Darwinism ever give you that kind of inspiration?  (Answer: no.  It inspired things like genocide and world wars.)  Design science is on a roll, improving the world.  Nowhere is the contrast between the good fruit of good science and the evil fruit of bad science more apparent than in the contrast between evolution and biomimetics.  “You will know them by their fruits” Francis Bacon said.  Guess where he got that proverb.


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