Biomimicry in Action: 13 Technologies Inspired by Nature

Side by side images showing a caterpillar in nature and a device designed for biomimicry
credit: Cyron

Sitting at the top of the food chain, it's easy for humans to think we don't have anything to learn from nature. But after millions of years of trial and error, evolution has come up with some amazing solutions to the problems facing our scientists. Fortunately for us, the burgeoning trend of biomimicry is copying those answers, leading to innovation in robotics, transportation, architecture, and other fields. From ostrich-inspired transportation to a motorcycle helmet with "skin" to a tower based on a flower, here are 13 novel technologies inspired by the natural world.

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Flower Tower

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The Fibrous Tower by Australian architecture firm Soma took second prize in the international Taiwan Tower competition. It's easy to see why: The visually striking structure takes its inspiration from flower stamens. It's also zero-carbon and produces its own energy. Right Image: Soma

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Climb Like a Gecko

credit: Wikipedia

The gecko is the only vertebrate that can climb vertically on any surface. It doesn't need claws or suction and doesn't leave a gooey trail, thanks to hairlike growths on its feet. Those feet are what led researchers at Simon Frasier University to build the Tailless Timing Belt Climbing Platform (TBCP-11), which can scale vertical walls at 3.4 cm per second. Right Image: SFU / CC BY 10.

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Looking to Leaves

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When it comes to building distribution networks, researchers have long been looking at the veins in leaves for instruction. Now biophysicists at Rockefeller University say that it matters which leaves you use- they recommend those with interconnected loops, which keep distribution going if there's a break somewhere in the network. These new networks may be more expensive to built, but they're more robust and resilient. Right Image: Wikimedia Commons

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A Creepy Way to Save Lives

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Researchers at Germany's Frauenhofer Institute built this robot to move like a spider, keeping four legs on the ground at all times while the other four take steps. Just like real spiders, this critter will be able to fit into tight spaces, so it can find people buried under debris in emergency situations. Even arachnaphobes will breathe a sigh of relief when they see one coming their way. Right Image: Franhaufer IPA

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Sprint Like an Ostrich

credit: Lip Kee

Any veteran ostrich racer (yup, real activity) knows just how fast the birds can move over rough terrain. The lightweight DARPA-commissioned FastRunner runs at 30mph, and its builders hope to get it up to a max speed of 50mph. The idea is to use it to deliver food and other supplies in disaster situations, when conventional forms of transportation are unavailable, slow, or unable to reach a damaged area. The springs in the legs recoup energy, extending the FastRunner's range. Right Image: plasticpals1 / YouTube Screenshot

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Copying the Caterpillar Roll

credit: InstituteofPhysics

While caterpillars may usually take their time getting places, they can really move when they want to, by rolling up into a ball and flinging themselves forward. The bizarre technique was copied to create the GoQBot, a silicone robot that can roll up in just 250 milliseconds and move at up to 300 rotations per minute. The long-term goal is to build a robot that can move in and out of battle situations in as little time as possible.

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From Inchworm to Treebot

credit: Cyron

When it comes to climbing, inchworms are masters. To help humans safely scale trees for dangerous tasks, scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong designed TreeBot. The design uses tactile sensors to navigate upward and moves by raising its head, then bringing up its rear- just like the mighty inchworm. Right Image:GerbilGod7 / YouTube Screenshot

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Butterfly Wing Power

credit: snowpeak

Butterfly wings are made up of tiny scales that happen to have surprisingly high light-harvesting capabilities. Solar cells that mimic them could be more efficient, as well as cheaper and faster to make, than what we have now. Right Figure: Reprinted (adapted) with permission from (Novel Photoanode Structure Templated from Butterfly Wing Scales. Wang Zhang, Di Zhang, Tongxiang Fan, Jiajun Gu, Jian Ding, Hao Wang, Qixin Guo, and Hiroshi Ogawa Chemistry of Materials 2009 21 (1), 33-40). Copyright (2009) American Chemical Society.

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Built Like a Sea Urchin

credit: Francois Schnell

This bionic dome, built by University of Stuttgart’s Institute for Computational Design (ICD) and the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE), is modeled on the plate skeleton of a sea urchin. The result is a structure that is strong as well as lightweight- and pretty cool-looking to boot.

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Super Strong Muscles

credit: Fast Company

How do you build incredibly strong muscles without resorting to steroids? Once again, nature holds the answer, and scientists have thought to look. Researchers from the NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas studied elephant and octopus biology to design muscles made from carbon nanotubes that might power the machines of the future. The carbon fiber bundles are superlight and strong as steel.

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A Helmet with Skin

credit: Lazer Helmets

A large percentage of motorcycle deaths and serious injuries are the result of rotational acceleration- when the head turns so rapidly that the brain tears blood vessels and nerve fibers. To keep riders' heads safe, Lazer Helmets turned to the head itself. The Superskin helmet has a flexible outer membrane. Like skin on a bare head, the membrane will stretch, reducing the helmet's degree of rotation, and keeping severe brain trauma at bay.

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Coral Reef Lighting

credit: Derek Keats

This red dot-winning lamp from Taiwan's Qisda Corporation combines energy-efficient, cool to the touch LEDs with the organic form of a coral reef. The overlapping panels can be rotated 120 degrees, providing great flexibility in how a space is lit- and they save a whole lot of energy, too. Right Image: Red Dot Award

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Maple Seed-Inspired Flight

credit: Comrade Foot

DARPA has been working on a drone that flies like a maple seed for several years, and it's paid off at last. The remote controlled whirling drone, called the Samarai, could be used for surveillance, without putting any lives in danger. Right Image:Lockheed Martin / YouTube screenshot