March 6, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Smart Devices

Nature had smart devices long before humans thought of making them. Here are a few that engineers envy.


Brown University wants to copy insects for small drones. An insect-inspired wing design “helps them fly more efficiently and makes them more robust to atmospheric turbulence.”


The American Institute of Physics noticed that spiders wrap their prey with a kind of glue that uses the moth’s defenses against them. They think a similar glue “for a wide range of uses,” including adhesives that cling even when surfaces are dirty.

The American Institute of Physics is also taking cues from a spider’s slit organ, a “pattern of cracks in the exoskeleton” that “allows the spider to detect small movements.” Using similar principles, they created a “tactile enhancement system” that could be used for “highly sensitive electronic whiskers, which can be used to map wind flow patterns; as wearable sensors for heartbeat and pulse detection; or as sensors on prosthetics to enhance the sense of touch.”

Marine Invertebrates

Noticing how well mussels cling to rocks against fierce tides, scientists at Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology are making glues that could repair an actively-pumping heart. (

Inspired by Mother Nature: Sea mussels resist the stormiest surf with ease. They hold on to the surface with protein threads. Empa researchers are using this property for a novel tissue glue for wound treatment.

See slug move: sea slugs and snails “are capable of diverse locomotion modes under water,” write the authors of a paper in PNAS, “Bioinspired underwater locomotion of light-driven liquid crystal gels.” The future will see untethered robots able to move about in water… just like sea slugs.

What’s a “tentacle bot”? It’s the latest invention from Harvard’s school of engineering, fashioned after the tentacles of an octopus. It looks kind of like the real animal. This “Octopus-inspired robot can grip, move, and manipulate a wide range of objects.”


Mangrove trees live in salt water; they have to desalinate it to live. Science Advances announces a “Capillary-driven desalination in a synthetic mangrove.” The research will “provide a new platform to study plant hydraulics, and create possibilities for engineered membrane separations using large, passively generated capillary pressures.”

Work at Aalto University shows that “The combination of plant-based particles and water forms an ‘eco’ super-glue.” Environmentalists, homemakers and hobbyists will be glad for this work. “Plant-based cellulose nanocrystals have remarkable inherent properties, and when combined with water, a powerful adhesive is formed that competes in strength with Superglue, without the need for toxic solvents.

Durians and jackfruits have been called the “world’s stinkiest fruits,” but you might notice something interesting while you hold your nose. New Scientist says that scientists at the University of Sydney have noticed that the “world’s stinkiest fruit could make super-fast electric chargers.”

Human Body

According to New Scientist, engineers at Cornell University have developed a skin for robots that sweats just like human fingers. See the Cornell Chronicle for more information. This capability can help a robot keep its cool. Now they need to figure out how to give the robot water to drink.






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