Technologies Inspired by Nature

Published on 06 Sep, 2017

Technologies Inspired By Nature

With over 3.8 billion years of rigorous R&D, Nature is, by far, the most sophisticated and powerful innovator there is.

Through evolution by natural selection, Nature has been able to work out creative solutions to support all forms of life on earth. By observing and studying these life forms – their behavior, movement, form, adaptability, and so on, humans have developed new technologies or optimized existing ones. Popularly known as biomimicry, this approach to innovation where materials, structures, and systems are designed, based on nature's time-tested sustenance strategies, is quickly gaining ground with scientists all over the world.

Here is a list of nine innovations inspired by nature that could be game-changers in a number of fields, including industrial robotics, manufacturing, maintenance, healthcare delivery, clean energy, building materials, even man’s leap for the stars.

Robotic Arms Inspired from the Elephant’s Trunk

The robotic arm was one of the biggest breakthroughs in the 21st century. It truly kicked in the era of automation by revolutionizing the way factories work. However, being modeled after the human arm, it does pose a few challenges. It is made of rigid parts which restrict movement.  The bulky arm is also a threat to people, which is why it has to be carefully protected to prevent collisions.

The Bionic Handling Assistant modeled after an elephant's trunk not only solves this problem but opens up a wide range of possibilities. 

Elephant Trunk inspired Robotic Arms

Image Source: Festo

It is made of plastic discs and uses compressed air to bend in any fashion much like an elephant’s trunk. It also uses FinGripper technology which is more useful to grab any fragile or oddly shaped objects. It is also safer since the bellows structure gives away in the event of a collision minimizing its impact on any human.

Injection Needles Inspired by the Mosquito’s Proboscis

There is a reason why you do not feel the mosquito bite. The saliva that enters the bloodstream post the bite is what causes the itch. The proboscis of a mosquito is made of 7 different movable parts – two of which hold the skin in place, two other make the cut, and the central tube sucks in the blood. This mechanism removes any sensation of pain usually felt on piercing through the skin. 

Mosquito Proboscis inspired Injection Needles

Image Source: Pixabay

Scientists have managed to copy three of these parts to create a motorized needle. A fine example of biomimicry, this motorized needle has two serrated tubes with a central straw. The tubes vibrate slightly to ease into the skin and the serrated edges minimize the surface area of contact. This mechanism drastically reduces the pain, which, otherwise, is felt when any traditional needle is poked through our skin.

Swimsuits Inspired by Shark Skin

The skin of a shark has the texture of sandpaper because their skin has tiny tooth-like denticles to prevent the buildup of fouling agents and reduce drag. 

Shark Skin Inspired Swimsuits

Image Source: Discover Magazine

This pattern was copied to reduce drag in boats. Other applications include high tech swimsuits, planes, and windmills.

It can also be used to manufacture surface materials for hospitals, public kitchens, and restaurants to reduce the build-up of bacteria. 

Swarm Technology

Bees in a hive behave as a single unit. Each bee can sense what job needs to be done and gets on it, without being instructed to do so. They instinctively know what is expected of them based on where they live in the hive and what the adjacent bees are doing. 

Bees inspired Swarm Technology

Image Source: ibtimes

The hive mind inspired swarm technology. A group of tiny robots, controlled by a central computer, can act as a single unit to take on complex tasks by communicating with one another and dividing the tasks among themselves. Each robot can think for itself to the best extent possible and acts primarily on the local information it gathers, i.e., by observing adjacent robots. Since no robot is in charge, a robot can easily replace another, should a unit malfunction. This technology is set to change the face of search and rescue missions. They are also currently used to improve the efficiency of power grids. 

Turbine Blades Inspired from Humpback Whale Flippers

The humpback whales owe their agility to a row of ridges (tubercles) on the front edge of their fins. Despite their size, these whales can swim up to speeds of 16.77 miles per hour.

Humpback Whale Flippers Inspired Turbine Blades

Image Source: InventorSpot

Called the tubercle effect, it markedly improves the aerodynamics of any airfoil by a significant amount. It leads to higher velocities by creating narrow streams of airflow and reduces drag by reducing airflow over the wing-tips.

The tubercle effect was used to reduce drag, noise, and increase speeds of wind turbines. The technology is being adapted to industrial fans and surfboards.

Bio-inspired Robotic Legs

Historically robot legs worked on the concept of static balance– which is moving from one stable position to another. As a result, these robots struggled to walk through rough terrain. However, nature has examples of animals (cats, wolves, cheetah, humans) who can move around on legs by walking, jumping, sprinting or running while maintaining balance on uneven terrain. For example, the cerebellum of the human brain receives inputs from the ear canals, eyes, the position of body parts relative to each other and local surroundings to maintain balance at all times. This process is known as active balancing, where the brain constantly monitors the relative placement of the body against the local surroundings to keep itself balanced.

Bio-inspired Robotic Legs

Image Source: Boston Dynamics

Boston dynamics used this concept of active balancing in their robot legs. The robot uses cameras, sensors from its legs and inputs from the environment to balance itself which makes it more surefooted in rocky and uneven terrains. They have also incorporated the way cheetahs arch their backs while running to allow these robotic legs to balance themselves better while running.

Slippery Liquid Infused Porous Surfaces (SLIPS)

Inspired by pitcher plants, SLIPPERY LIQUID INFUSED POROUS SURFACES (SLIPS) is a surface coating that is currently used for industrial and medical materials but has applications in almost any industry. 

Pitcher Plants inspired Porous Surfaces

Image Source: YouTube

This coating is made from porous nano-materials infused with a lubricating fluid. The surface is ultra-repellant and non-stick thereby preventing bacterial biofouling and can deter almost any other fouling agent.

Vertical Axis Wind Turbine Blades

There are two reasons why present day wind turbines are not the most optimal way to generate wind energy:

  1. Given their gargantuan structures, wind turbines need to be spaced far apart from one another for increased efficiency. As a result, turbine farms require lot of space and usually will yield lower outputs.
  2. A lot of birds (estimates say over 100,000 annually) are clobbered by the turbines in these farms.

Nature has a solution to both those problems, and the answer lays beneath the waves. Schools of swimming fish use the water’s behavior to move forward. As a result of schooling, the propulsion power that each fish needs to exert is also reduced by a significant amount. Turbine blades inspired by the hydraulics of schooling are more efficient, have fewer parts, and are safer for birds. 

Waves inspired Wind Turbine Blades

Image Source: Wikipedia

Additionally, these turbines do not take up a lot of land space thereby increasing the output of harnessed wind energy (up to an estimated ten times) from the same amount of space.  

Space Geckos

Thanks to microscopic hairs (called setae) on their toes, Geckos can stick to almost any kind of surface. These reptiles do not lose their stickiness over time, and the more pressure they apply, the harder they stick to any surface. This mobility technique has inspired scientists to develop gecko – a skin material that is a silicon base comprised of tiny synthetic hairs that can mimic the geckos’ stickiness. 

Geckos inspired Skin Material

Image Source: Wikipedia

The material can be used as anchors for space repairs and inspection, human climbing suits, or even in robotics to pull heavy weights.  

When technology evolves at a breakneck pace, it is necessary for dynamic organizations to track the innovations and technological developments in their area of business, and be aware of the opportunities — and threats — coming their way.

New technologies can either open doors of opportunities or prove to be a disruptive force for modern day businesses. A successful technology watching exercise not only helps companies identify new innovations and technology trends, but also chart out future strategies based on the insights gathered.