robot fish

The biomimetic technology behind this robot fish is based on the common carp. The robot navigates and propels itself through water with its fins, just like a real fish.

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Inspired by Nature

While the act of mimicking nature in human innovation has existed for ages, biomimicry came into its own as a prominent field of study and ethical stance in the late 20th century. American biologist Janine M. Benyus became a well-known leader of the movement in the late '90s with the publication of her book, "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature." Since then, Benyus has gone on to found the Biomimicry Guild, an environmental consultation firm, and the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group.

While development groups and researchers continue to be inspired by nature, Benyus pushes for a more comprehensive understanding of biomimicry in which nature is model, measure and mentor. Model refers to the basic principle of emulating nature in human design; and measure stresses sustainability.

The natural world, as a system, is considered sustainable, in that its systems reuse and recycle resources in an efficient, continuous manner. In comparison, most of our technology and way of life is unsustainable. This means the required resources are regularly depleted or permanently damaged. Benyus argues that a truly biomimetic approach to a problem should involve nature's sustainability.

Nature as mentor stresses a new way of viewing our environment -- breaking away from the industrialized view of the world as a collection of resources available for plundering. Benyus insists that any serious biomimetic project should do more than imitate the design and efficiency of nature. She says designers should follow environmental ethics. For instance, a solar-powered vehicle patterned after the movement of a sand crab might be an amazing invention. However, she says the product loses all of its biomimetic credibility if its primary use is to cut down rainforests or serve as a weapons' platform.

Can biomimicry help cool your apartment building or protect you from a car wreck? Read the next page to find out.