Taylor Made: Natural inspirations
Biomimicry is defined as the imitation of nature for innovation and problem solving purposes. Many significant inventions take their inspiration from natural phenomena.
Boston Dynamics is known for building robots designed after animals, mimicking movements and limb patterns for final results that are impressively realistic. One of their robots, named WildCat (see the pic above), is the fastest quadruped robot in existence. In addition to tackling rough terrain, WildCat has the ability to maintain traction when running around corners by leaning into the turn.
The Shinkansen bullet train’s engine has a nose shape inspired by the beak of the Kingfisher, a bird with the impressive ability of causing minimal ripples when diving underwater. Previous versions of the train were causing booming noises upon exiting at speed from tunnels along their routes. The new, fifty-foot long nose reduced the noise by preventing air pressure from building in the tunnels and also allowed for higher speeds at reduced power.
Various scientists have studied sharks’ ability to prevent algae build up on their skin despite traveling slowly through seawater. Sharks have sharp, microscopic scales called dentricles covering their skin in patterns. The dentricles serve to decrease drag and turbulence experienced by the shark as it moves, improving its speed and stealth. Reproduced dentricle patterns have been used to improve performance in applications such as boat hulls and windmills as well as to reduce germ build-up on medical surfaces such as catheters.
Similarly, certain windmill blade designs have benefitted from humpback whales, which have been studied for the rows of bumps they have along the leading edge of their fins. Called tubercules, these bumps have been found to reduce drag by helping the fins to slice through the water. Tubercule-inspired designs have also been applied to surfboards.
When mosquitoes bite, they pierce the skin by injecting a serrated tube called a proboscis. The serrated surface allows the tube to contact the skin at fewer points along its length than if it were smooth, causing less initial pain. The serrated surface efficiency has inspired studies that focus on creating medical needles of similar design in order to reduce pain caused by shots.
The ability for human skin to easily heal small cuts inspired University of Michigan engineers to create concrete that can “heal” itself when cracked. Microfibers are used in place of sand and gravel for aggregate to strengthen the cement mixture. Similar to skin tearing as a result of a small scratch or paper cut, the fibers allow the concrete to experience small hairline fractures instead of the typical larger, complex break. Once fractured, the concrete can absorb moisture through its crack, causing it to become soft and expand. The cement mixture contains calcium ions that absorb the moisture and react with ambient carbon dioxide to form calcium carbonate, hardening the concrete once more.
Lastly, Swiss engineer George de Mestral found some Burdock burrs stuck on his dog and decided to look at them under a microscope. Their pattern of tiny hooks inspired him to create Velcro. Enough said.
Top image: Boston Dynamics' robot Wildcat can run at a top speed of 20 miles per hour.