14 Best Inventions Using Biomimicry in 2011

ICD/ITKE research pavilion with sea urchin-like details

MSeses / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

We love biomimicry news. There is something satisfying about the natural world telling us how to make our technology better, rather than the often-assumed other way around. 2011 seems to have given us a bumper crop of news stories about biomimicry innovations and we have selected some of the most interesting robots, materials, structures and strategies to highlight here.

1. Super-Slippery Material for Bottles and Pipes Mimicked After Carnivorous Plant Leaves

Biomimicry is everywhere, but let's start in the plant world where recently scientists used the slick leaves of a carnivorous Nepenthes pitcher plant as the inspiration behind a new material that can coat items to keep the contents from sticking to them. The scientists think the material could be useful for everything from self-cleaning surfaces (minimizing the use of cleaners) to coating the inside of condiment bottles so every last drop of sauce drips out (minimizing food waste). It could also be use inside pipes as it repels both water and oily materials, which could help reduce clogs and even cracks caused by ice.

2. Plant with Eggbeater-Shaped Hairs Inspires New Waterproof Coating

A common weed in waterways has helped create a waterproof coating for fabrics. The Salvinia molesta is an annoying plant to many, but not to scientists at Ohio State University. This weed has eggbeater-shaped hairs that trap air and keep the plant floating on the surface of the water. The shape of the hairs allow it to easily trap air in little pockets, and the tip of the hairs are sticky so it can cling to the water. The hairs thus create a combination of buoyancy and clingy-ness that keep the plant floating but stale on the surface of the water. Engineers recreated this unusual feature using plastic and tests of the material so have have been successful. The scientists think it could mean an ideal material for things like boats and other aquatic vehicles.

3. Freeform Wooden Pavilion Structurally Biomimicks Sea Urchin's Form

The simple sea urchin has a whole lot to offer for biomimicry when it comes to architecture. Kimberly writes of this gorgeous structure, "Created as a joint effort in biological research between University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design (ICD) and the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE), the so-called “bionic” dome is constructed out of plywood sheets at 6.5 millimeters thick. Modelled on the biological principles of a sea urchin’s plate skeleton, the idea was to study and then emulate this biological form using advanced computer-based design and simulations. In particular, the designers focused on the sand dollar, a sub-species of sea urchin (Echinoidea)." The design becomes a gorgeous shelter for events and outdoor activities.

4. Cockroach Legs Inspire Robotic Hand's Grip Action

Among the many features of a cockroach that inspire researchers, the way they move around is perhaps the most intriguing. Cockroaches are fast, agile, and have a spring-like movement in their legs. That movement is what inspired researchers working on a new robotic hand. Using previous research that mimicked the way a cockroach runs, a team of scientists moved that research on to a hand that can grasp a variety of objects, and may one day even be able to grasp items like keys. It could even lead to new hands for amputees that are as dexterous as their original hand.

5. Tank-like Robot Climbs Walls With Gecko-Inspired Feet

Geckos have long been a source of inspiration for those interested in biomimicry, primarily because of their seemingly sticky feet. Gecko feet are marvels of evolution, able to keep traction even on glass. That's why researchers at Simon Fraiser University were all gaga over geckos when trying to figure out how to make a tank-like robot that could climb up the most slick of surfaces. This new tank with mushroom cap-shaped artificial setae (the hairlike growths on gecko feet that help them cling to surfaces) seems quite effective. The mushroom cap shape allows the setae on the treads to release at an angle, so no extra force is require to unstick them from a surface. That's what allows the tank to roll forward with ease, without dropping off the surface. Here it is in action.

6. Parasitic Fly Helps Revolutionize Antenna Technology

It's funny how even the smallest and even seemingly uninteresting or harmful insects can lend their evolutionary secrets to science. The Ormia ochracea is a small parasitic fly known for its incredible sense of directional hearing. The female relies on this sense to find poor crickets that become a host for her eggs. But her minute antenna are so powerful that we haven't come close to mimicking it, at least not yet. By studying this little bug, scientists are working on improved designs for antennas that can mimic the directional hearing this fly is capable of. If we can come up with something as powerful as the natural abilities of this bug it will be a real breakthrough for more wireless bandwidth, better cell phone reception, radar and imaging systems and more.

7. Creating The World's Strongest Artificial Muscles With Biomimicry

Scientists from the NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas are coming up with a way to use carbon nanotubes as the material for muscles modeled after natural structures like an elephant's trunk or an octopus's tentacle. The resulting prototypes are as strong as steel but super light. These strong nanotubes may one day be used in clothing for the elderly that can help weaker muscles do their tasks.

8. Robot Spider Will Find You After A Disaster

Spiders have a knack for getting into all sorts of cracks and crevasses. You never know where they'll be able to squeeze themselves, and that's just why researchers based a rescue robot on the shape and movement of a spider. Created by researchers at Germany's Frauenhofer Institute, the spider-like robot features a new way of moving that closely resembles the way that real life spiders move. It has hydraulic bellows that move its legs, and four or more legs are on the ground at once to keep it stable. The robot can be used to get into environments that are too dangerous or difficult for humans to go, including accident sites and other emergency areas.

9. DARPA's Maple Seed-Inspired Drone Takes Flight

Now this is just awesome. Taking a cue from how maple leaves manage to drift for long distances using an unusual shape to spiral themselves through the air, DARPA is designing a drone that uses that same spinning motion to fly, including an ability to do vertical take-offs. The trick to the maple seed is that it's one (or two) "wings" help it to whirl in the air as it falls, giving the breeze a chance to pick it up and carry it away from the tree. That kind of whirling action is what DARPA was after for a new drone that could be used for collecting military intelligence. Or, if TreeHugger were to take over the project, gathering data on deforestation, monitoring endangered species, checking in on pollution levels and so on.

10. Robotic Seagull Attracts a Real Flock of Seagulls

Some robots mimic a certain trait from a plant or animal while others mimic the entire thing. This seagull robot did just that and with some alarmingly realistic results. The robot is so realistic, it even attracted other seagulls. The robot uses similar flapping wings on a light-weight body. Flitting over the crowd, it's not hard to imagine how other seagulls might think there's something worth inspecting.

11. Clever But Creepy Tree-Climbing Robot Mimics Inchworms

Climbing robots were popular this year, and this clever concept is no exception to the rule of smart designs. Using the movement of an inchworm, the Treebot really does look like an inchworm as it finds a new hold on a tree's surface. The researchers hope that Treebot could be a helpful tool for humans who might need to scale trees for dangerous tasks. It uses tactile sensors that can figure out a tree's shape to allow the robot to adjust its hold on the surface and navigate its way up tree trunks and over branches. It's really rather incredible.

12. Venus Fly Trap-Like Robots Eat Bugs and Could Use Them for Energy

Researchers have figured out how to make a robot that acts like a Venus fly trap, snapping shut when an insect lands on it. It can be done either with sensors or with the weight of the insect. This carnivorous plant-like robot could be combined with technology used by the Ecobot to digest insects have derive energy from them to be a self-sustaining bug-eating bot. Creepy.

13. Caterpillar Robot Rolls Away at Lightening Speed

Speaking of worm-ish things, this robot is mimicked off of a caterpillar that reacts at lightening speed to an attacker, rolling up and rolling away. It is so fast, it might freak you out a little bit. Called GoQBot, the silicone robot is outfitted with actuators made from shape-memory alloy coils that allow it to coil up and get moving in just 250 milliseconds, and roll at a speed of 300 RPM. That's amazingly fast. It could be used as a robot that can, according to the creators, "wheel to a debris field and wiggle into the danger for us." If anything, it could sure scare the bejeezus out of someone if it suddenly rolls right past them.

14. First Practical "Artificial Leaf" Powers Fuel Cells for Rural Homes

We come back to the humble leaf because, after all, the entire solar industry is based upon mimicking photosynthesis as closely as possible. This year, scientists made great strides in mimicking the leaf. The "artificial leaf" would be used to generate power for off grid homes in developing areas, and the hope is that one such "leaf" could provide enough energy for an entire household. The advanced solar cell is about the size of a poker card, and mimics photosynthesis. This is different from the solar cells we're used to, which convert sunlight into energy directly. Instead, this process utilizes water as well, just as typical leaves work. Made from silicon, electronics and catalysts, the solar cell is placed in a gallon of water in bright sunlight where it can go to work splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen and storing the gasses in a fuel cell. The new leaf uses cheaper materials -- namely nickle and cobalt -- that could be scaled up in manufacturing.