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Innovating by Mimicking Nature

August 10, 2011


Since our earliest ancestors began pondering the world about them, humankind has undoubtedly been fascinated with the amazing things that can be found in nature. Amazed at birds in flight, we’ve developed all sorts of contraptions to get us up into the air. Inspired by water fowl we have developed fins for our feet. We have developed scuba gear that permits us to swim with the fishes (in a nice way). We’ve developed night vision goggles so that we see like nocturnal predators. Everywhere we look nature’s inspiration abounds. Map Ives, the director of sustainability for Wilderness Safaris in Botswana, told New York Times‘ columnist Thomas Friedman that he believes humans are hardwired to pay attention and learn from nature. “If you spend enough time in nature and allow yourself to slow down sufficiently to let your senses work,” Ives says, “then through exposure and practice, you will start to sense the meanings in the sand, the grasses, the bushes, the trees, the movement of the breezes, the thickness of the air, the sounds of the creatures and the habits of the animals with which you are sharing that space.” [“Connecting Nature’s Dots,” 22 August 2009]


Past experience and emerging innovations reveals that humankind has benefitted greatly from paying attention to nature. Ives, however, worries that “the speed at which humans have improved technology since the Industrial Revolution has attracted so many people to towns and cities and provided them with ‘processed’ natural resources that our innate ability to make all these connections may be disappearing as fast as biodiversity.” Fortunately, there are still enough scientists and researchers paying attention that we continue to benefit from unlocking nature’s secrets. About once a year I get around to writing a blog on this subject (see past posts entitled Turning to Nature to Save Energy, Learning from Nature, and Learning from Nature II). In this post, I’ll discuss what we’ve learned from animals like geckos, shrews, lampreys, octopuses, lizards, and clams as well as from plants like water ferns. Let’s start with the latter.


Since Enterra Solutions® is involved in supply chain optimization as well as port & harbor security, I follow developments in maritime transportation. Since much of the world’s goods travel by sea, the more efficient ships can become the better it is for everyone. The humble water fern may help make ships more efficient in the future. Noel McKeegan explains:

“Ships are big polluters and one of the key reasons for this is the energy lost due to friction as they move through the water. Numerous innovations in marine paint technology have sought to address this issue and now a group of German material research scientists have unlocked a secret that could radically improve fuel consumption … and it’s all down to the marvelous properties of one small plant. The work by researchers at the Universities of Bonn, Rostock and Karlsruhe centers on the water fern salvinia molesta. This plant fern surrounds itself by a layer of air that enables it to remain dry when underwater. While it has been understood for some time that this is a result of tiny hairs on the plant’s leaves which trap air, the problem in mimicking this phenomenon has been to make the layer stick. When replicated, this superhydrophobic surface disappears after several hours in moving water, but salvinia molesta can stay ‘dry’ even when submerged for weeks. What the researchers have now discovered is how the plant manages to keep this air filled layer in place using nature’s version of a staple. ‘We were able to show that the outermost tips of these whisks are hydrophilic, i.e. they love water,’ Professor Wilhelm Barthlott from the University of Bonn explains. ‘They plunge into the surrounding liquid and basically staple the water to the plant at regular intervals. The air layer situated beneath it can therefore not escape so easily.'” [“Unlocking water fern’s secrets could pave the way for more efficient ships,” Gizmag, 4 May 2010]

Professor Thomas Schimmel from the University of Karlsruhe asserts, “After the solving of the self-cleansing of the lotus leaf twenty years ago, the discovery of the salvinia effect is one of the most important new discoveries in bionics.” According to McKeegan, increasing ship efficiency is not the only potential benefit of this discovery. For example, it could lead to “fast drying swimsuits” and “hugely effective raincoats.” McKeegan concludes that “other possible applications for this bionic technology are huge.”


Turning from the plant kingdom to the animal kingdom, “researchers at Cornell University have created a palm-sized device that uses water tension as a switchable adhesive bond and can support many times its own weight. The device could usher in a whole new generation of superheroes by allowing shoes or gloves that stick and unstick to walls on command, or see the creation of Post-It notes that can bear loads.” [“Has the human gecko’s time finally come?” by Darren Quick, Gizmag, 2 February 2010] Quick reports that it wasn’t the gecko that inspired researchers but “Florida’s palm or tortoise beetle, which can stick to a leaf with a force 100 times its own weight by secreting an oil and pressing tens of thousands of bristles against the leaf. It can then release itself in an instant.” Quick continues:

“The device uses an electric field from a common 9-volt battery to move water through a three-layer structure. This creates surface tension which gives the device its ability to adhere. Turn off the current and the stickiness disappears. ‘In our everyday experience, these forces are relatively weak,’ Steen told Cornell Chronicle Online’s Anne Ju. ‘But if you make a lot of them and can control them, like the beetle does, you can get strong adhesion forces.’ A prototype device made with around 1,000 300-micron sized holes was able to hold about 30 grams (1 ounce), but the researchers found that if they scaled down the holes to cram more onto the top plate’s surface they could increase the force of adhesion. In fact they estimate that a one-square-inch device with millions of 1-micron-sized holes could hold more than 15 pounds.”

Research scientists involved in robotics also draw inspiration from the animal kingdom. An article in The Economist claims that historically robots have fallen into two categories — those that try to look and act human (Anthropoidea) and more pragmatic robots used to accomplish useful tasks (Widgetophora). [“Zoobotics,” 7 July 2011] The article asserts that the “few animal-like robots that fell between these extremes were usually built to resemble pets (Sony’s robot dog, AIBO, for example) and were, in truth, not much more than just amusing toys.” To learn more about this kind of robot, read my post entitled Robots You Can Love. The article continues:

“They are toys no longer, though, for it has belatedly dawned on robot engineers that they are missing a trick. The great natural designer, evolution, has come up with solutions to problems that neither the Widgetophora nor the Anthropoidea can manage. Why not copy these proven models, the engineers wondered, rather than trying to outguess 4 billion years of natural selection? The result has been a flourishing of animal-like robots. It is not just dogs that engineers are copying now, but shrews complete with whiskers, swimming lampreys, grasping octopuses, climbing lizards and burrowing clams. They are even trying to mimic insects, by making robots that take off when they flap their wings. As a consequence, the Widgetophora and the Anthropoidea are being pushed aside. The phylum Zoomorpha is on the march. Cecilia Laschi and her team at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa are a good example of this trend. They lead an international consortium that is building a robotic octopus. To create their artificial cephalopod they started with the animal’s literal and metaphorical killer app: its flexible, pliable arms. In a vertebrate’s arms, muscles do the moving and bones carry the weight. An octopus arm, though, has no bones, so its muscles must do both jobs. Its advantage is that, besides grasping things tightly, it can also squeeze into nooks and crannies that are inaccessible to vertebrate arms of similar dimensions.”

As the article notes, Laschi’s team has only developed a single arm (a monopus), but plan on making a robot with multiple arms. The below video shows you the arm in action.



The article also discusses the work of another group of engineers at Sant’Anna, led by Paolo Dario and Cesare Stefanini. This group is designing robots copied after the lamprey. It explains:

“Lampreys are the simplest living vertebrates. Like octopuses, they have no bones (though they do have a rudimentary skeleton made of cartilage). Their nervous systems are simple, too, which makes them a good starting point for studies of the neurological arrangement that eventually spawned the human brain. Sten Grillner’s group at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm has therefore spent many years studying lampreys, in order to gain insights about vertebrate nerves. His latest way of doing so is to look at robot versions of the fish. Dr Dario and Dr Stefanini have built him a device called Lampetra, which is made of circular segments modelled on the lamprey’s cartilaginous vertebrae. Each segment has an electromagnet attached to it, and these are activated by a current that flows from head to tail in more or less the way that a nerve signal flows in a real animal. A segment therefore first attracts and then releases the next, creating a wavelike movement that propels the robot forward.”

Although the primary purpose of the Lampetra “is to explain how vertebrates use perception to guide their movements,” the article claims that “Lampetra’s unique propulsion system could also have useful applications, as it has proved an efficient way to move a machine through water.” Among the other projects discussed in the article is one headed by Daniel Germann of the University of Zurich. “He works on clams and is building robot versions of them to find out how the shape of an animal’s shell affects its chances of survival.” Another project is called “StickyBotIII, a robot gecko developed by Mark Cutkosky’s team at Stanford University.” Still another project is one headed by Tony Prescott at the University of Sheffield, in England. His team is “attempting to replicate the exquisitely sensitive whiskers of the Etruscan shrew.” They have “built Shrewbot, a robot that reproduces the animal’s head. It has 18 whiskers of different lengths and its software moves these independently of one another, using the information thus gathered to decide whether an object is worth further investigation. So far, Shrewbot can distinguish a smooth surface from a corrugated one. Soon, Dr Prescott hopes, it will be able to recognise basic shapes such as spheres, cubes and cylinders as well. The long-term goal is to build a robot that can operate in places where vision is not much use — smoke-filled buildings, for example.”


The article concludes with a discussion of flying robots. It claims the Holy Grail for engineers is to develop a robot with “the flapping-wing flight of insects, with its attendant ability to hover. A tiny flying robot of this sort, equipped with a camera, could get into places that are too small or dangerous for people — enemy bunkers, for example — and report what was going on.” Efforts to achieve that goal are underway by researchers at the University of Delft. “Led by Rick Ruijsink, [the team has] developed DelFly, a robotic version of a dragonfly that has two pairs of flapping wings which are moved by an electric motor. DelFly can alternate between flying at high speeds and hovering, in order to take a better look at interesting places.” The article continues:

“Another flying robot, the AirBurr, developed by Jean Cristophe Zufferey at the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne, uses a different approach. It does not look much like an insect, but it behaves like one. In particular, it has an insect-like way of dealing with obstacles. Instead of trying hard to avoid them in the first place, it is designed to recover quickly from the occasional thud against the wall, and resume flying.”

The article concludes that even though robots of the future might draw heavily from nature, they might not look very much like the creatures that inspired them. “Robots of the future might end up resembling medieval monsters, with shrews’ heads, octopuses’ arms and lampreys’ bodies. More likely, though, is that specialist machines will be designed to collaborate, with reconnaissance airbots feeding information to groups of groundbots or seabots that are designed to perform different tasks — a robotic ecosystem, you might say.” Human beings pride themselves on being clever. It appears we have finally become clever enough to realize that we have a lot more to learn from the world around us.

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