April 14, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

Biomimetics Parade Marches Upward

Scientists continue to find amazing things about animals and plants that they wish to imitate in technology.

A squid-skin-inspired invisibility cloak (Nature). “A squid’s skin contains coloured cells, some of which expand and contract to help change the animal’s appearance.” Imitation of this technique at UC Irvine “has inspired a device that can be made invisible to infrared cameras and adapted to changing conditions.”

Scientists mimic a worm’s lethal jaw to design and form resilient materials (Phys.org). With support from the U.S. Department of Energy, “Scientists created a bioinspired gradient in mechanical properties.” The inspiration comes from the polychaete worm, which for a soft animal has a surprisingly touch jaw with which it injects venom into its prey. It withstands large forces through the layering of materials. “The design of the jaw, with a gradient of hard materials at the tip connected to softer tissues, dissipates force and prevents serious damage to the jaw.”

Photo by David Coppedge.

Cactus roots inspire creation of water-retaining material (Phys.org). “During rare desert rainfalls, cacti waste no time sopping up and storing a storm’s precious precipitation.” Imitation of this process “could eventually have a host of applications in agriculture, cosmetics and medicine.”

The raw power of human motion (Phys.org). Even the Arabs are getting into biological engineering. At King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, researchers are designing robots that can hitchhike on human energy. Triboelectric generators “capture mechanical energy from their surroundings, such as vibrations and random motion produced by humans, and convert it into electricity.”

Mushrooms, feathers combine in biodegradable shoes (Phys.org). Researchers at the University of Delaware are skipping over the imitation part and going direct to the natural material. “Two University of Delaware students put their best foot forward at this year’s National Sustainable Design Expo, showing off a biodegradable shoe they fashioned using mushrooms, chicken feathers and textile waste.” The feathers provide growth medium for the mushrooms, which cushion and provide support. Hopefully the shoes don’t biodegrade while you’re walking around cactus to study water-retaining material.

Bioinspired polarization vision enables underwater geolocalization (Science Advances). Ants, bees, crickets, dung beetles, and spiders may seem like under-log vermin to some people, but they are nuggets of gold for biomimetics hunters. Each of these, as well as honeybees and other animals, have the ability to detect and use polarized light. Even less explored are underwater animals, where light is highly polarized—a source of information animals can exploit. Science Daily points to squid and the mantis shrimp as examples. The paper says tells how their bioinspired technology can vastly improve on GPS information that degrades with depth:

Amazing FactsWith its never-ending blue color, the underwater environment often seems monotonic and featureless. However, to an animal with polarization-sensitive vision, it is anything but bland. The rich repertoire of underwater polarization patterns—a consequence of light’s air-to-water transmission and in-water scattering—can be exploited both as a compass and for geolocalization purposes. We demonstrate that, by using a bioinspired polarization-sensitive imager, we can determine the geolocation of an observer based on radial underwater polarization patterns. Our experimental data, recorded at various locations around the world, at different depths and times of day, indicate that the average accuracy of our geolocalization is 61 km, or 6 m of error for every 1 km traveled. This proof-of-concept study of our bioinspired technique opens new possibilities in long-distance underwater navigation and suggests additional mechanisms by which marine animals with polarization-sensitive vision might perform both local and long-distance navigation.

Biologically inspired membrane purges coal-fired smoke of greenhouse gases (Phys.org). Sandia National Labs is using information gained by research on enzymes to develop “A biologically inspired membrane intended to cleanse carbon dioxide almost completely from the smoke of coal-fired power plants,” this article explains.

Gecko-inspired adhesives help soft robotic fingers get a better grip (Science Daily). The gecko is back, starring in another biomimetics role. At UC San Diego, “Researchers have developed a robotic gripper that combines the adhesive properties of gecko toes and the adaptability of air-powered soft robots to grasp a much wider variety of objects than the state of the art” (see picture in the article). The new project draws on previous work “at Stanford University and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory recreated that mechanism with a synthetic material called a gecko-inspired adhesive.”

Monarch butterfly feeding

Credit: Illustra Media

New camera inspired by butterfly eyes improves image-guided cancer surgery (Science Daily). Cancer patients, look at what The Optical Society is doing with butterflies. “By mimicking the intricate visual system of a butterfly, researchers have created a camera that provides surgeons with both a traditional color image as well as a near-infrared image that makes fluorescently labeled cancerous cells visible even under bright surgical lighting.”

Can we imitate organisms’ abilities to decode water patterns for new technologies? (Science Daily). Animals leave flow patterns in their wake, whether in air or in water. Other animals take advantage of that information for hunting or predator avoidance. The article mentions a variety of animals: copepods, bats, seagulls. A researcher at USC “would like to understand how these water flow patterns are perceived at a local level, by an organism or a bio-inspired vehicle, and decode them to ascertain what’s happening in the water at a larger scale.”

Cheer the biomimetics parade, and join it! Think of your kid’s next science project. What in the backyard can inspire him or her to learn and design an application?





Leave a Reply