August 3, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Smart Scientists Borrow Natural Designs

Scientists and engineers are back in school, learning from the best teachers: plants and animals.

Beetle lifesavers: Scientists in Indonesia have created “cyborg beetles” they think can save lives (BBC News).

Sea slug explorer: A robot made to imitate a sea slug could search the depths of fresh and salt water (Science Daily; see also Live Science). This one actually uses sea slug tissue.

By combining materials from the California sea slug, Aplysia californica, with three-dimensional printed parts, “we’re creating a robot that can manage different tasks than an animal or a purely manmade robot could,” Quinn said.

The researchers chose the sea slug because the animal is durable down to its cells, withstanding substantial changes in temperature, salinity and more as Pacific Ocean tides shift its environment between deep water and shallow pools. Compared to mammal and bird muscles, which require strictly controlled environments to operate, the slug’s are much more adaptable.

Germ therapy: “Fresh insight into how ocean bacteria search for food could aid the development of a new generation of bacterial therapies programmed to treat disease” (PhysOrg). They’re small and know how to get around. Why not use bugs to diagnose diseases and deliver drugs?

Flagellar swimmers: Speaking of drug delivery, scientists at Drexel University are trying to make swimming microrobots, inspired by the bacteria that have outboard motors (Science Daily).

Vitamin battery: A battery inspired by “high performing organic molecules,” e.g., Vitamin B2, “can safely store electricity from intermittent energy sources like solar and wind power in large batteries” (Science Daily).

Cute robots: When a dog blocks traffic, people are sympathetic, but not when a robot blocks traffic. The Russian robot maker Promobot is putting googly eyes on its new models to see if people will treat them better (New Scientist).

Disappearing strongmen: Semi-transparent marine organisms called siphonophores (phylum Cnidaria) are leading to “bio-inspired sensitive and reversible mechanochromisms via strain-dependent cracks and folds” (Nature Communications).

Mushroom housing: Because they are light yet strong, mushrooms (the actual living materials), “Researchers are working on creating building materials, medicine, cleaning products, textiles, biofuels, packaging, and countless other products out of the fungi” (National Geographic).

Rat stingray robot: Two animals inspired this swimming robot: rats and stingrays (Science Daily). The stingray part is for locomotion, using the fish’s undulating fin motion. The rat part inspired light-sensitive heart cells. “The method works well enough to guide the robot through a basic obstacle course.” See also BBC News.

Cell remodelers: “Biochemists at the University of California San Diego have developed artificial cell membranes that grow and remodel themselves in a manner similar to that of living mammalian cells” (PhysOrg). New therapies may come from this education.

Raptor drones: By learning how gliding birds adjust quickly and efficiently to turbulence in thermals, gaining great height with a minimal expenditure of energy, glider plane designers are working toward “energy efficient autonomous gliders.”

Spider web woofers: By learning how spider silk transmits quanta of sound called phonons, engineers are learning to do with sound waves what semiconductors do for electrons (Science Daily).

DNA memory: Microsoft is looking at DNA as a long-term storage medium (PhysOrg). “Converting digital information to DNA involves translating between the two codes.”

Darwinians, what have you done for mankind lately? Follow the inspiration in science. The inspiration is coming from design thinking.




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