Engineers are in the business of solving problems. It's their job to find ways to achieve certain outcomes. The problem might involve finding a way to build a skyscraper that can withstand hurricane-force winds. Or it might be to discover a method to deliver a specific dosage of drugs to a single cell in the human body.
Engineers often look to nature to see if there's already a solution to the problem they currently face. Not only must they recognize the solution, but also be able to study, copy and enhance that solution so that we can take advantage of it. There's a special word for this approach: biomimetics. Ultimately, the engineer's creation mimics the structure or function of a biological entity.
The results can be awe-inspiring or something people routinely take for granted. But even the basic inventions wouldn't have been possible if engineers hadn't paid close attention to the way things work in nature. We'll take a look at five ways nature has inspired the technology we rely upon, listed in no particular order.
Developing Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence is a term that has been thrown around for decades. In the past, computers were just powerful machines that could crunch enormous numbers -- they couldn't think for themselves. A computer could only follow explicit instructions.
Today, engineers and computer scientists are trying to make the leap from computation to thinking. They've met with some progress. In 2008, scientists used the BlueGene L supercomputer to simulate a mouse's brain. That might sound simple, but a brain -- even one belonging to a virtual mouse -- is incredibly complex. So complex, in fact, that the powerful computer could only run the simulation in bursts of 10 seconds [source: BBC News].
In 2009, Cornell researchers created a computer program that was able to derive the basic laws of motion by analyzing the movements of a pendulum. The program took a series of measurements and used a genetic algorithm to extrapolate the basic laws of physics.
In the future, we may see machines capable of solving complex engineering problems. We may even reach the point where computers design even more powerful machines. How's that for deep thought?
Invading Cancer Cells
There are teams of engineers, computer scientists and doctors who are working on methods to cure cancer and other diseases on a cell-by-cell basis. One solution they're working on involves designing delivery technologies on the nanoscale. They're building medical nanoparticles -- objects that are smaller than 100 nanometers in diameter. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. In fact, the nanoscale is so small that it's impossible to view nanoparticles even with the aid of a light microscope.
The idea is elegant: Create a drug-delivery particle that can seek out a cancer cell, infiltrate it and deliver medication exactly where it needs to go. By targeting just the cancer cells, doctors hope to eliminate the disease while minimizing any side effects. Healthy cells would remain unaffected.
This is trickier than it sounds. But these teams have a natural model they can study to create nanoparticles: viruses. Viruses can measure only a few nanometers in length and are able to seek out specific kinds of cells somehow before replicating. Doctors hope to create nanoparticles that mimic this ability.
Sticking to Walls
Since the dawn of time, man has searched for the ideal way to stick something to something else. In ancient times, this may have involved hammering a large spike through the hide of a mammoth to make the cave dwelling a little less drafty. These days, engineers look to plants with burrs or creatures like the gecko for inspiration.
Back in 1941, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral was picking out burrs that had caught on his clothing and in his dog's fur. He placed a burr under a microscope and noticed that it had tiny barbs that allowed it to attach to passing creatures. The engineer came up with a brilliant plan -- create a material that used these tiny barbs as a fastening device. That material is what we now call Velcro [source: Stephens].
Then there's Gecko Tape, a material that uses nanoscopic hairs to cling to sheer surfaces. The hairs mimic the ones you'd find on the feet of geckos. One day, scientists might be able to create an entire suit using this material. That suit would allow the wearer to scale walls and perhaps even walk across ceilings. Before long, we may be able to put in a call to our friendly neighborhood Spider-man.
In the future, there will be robots. Whether they will cater to our every need or hunt us down in packs. It remains to be seen. Either way, one feature robots will need to achieve their true potential is autonomous navigation.
Most robots either require a pre-programmed route or simply react to the environment whenever they encounter an obstacle. Very few can find their way from one point to another on their own. Some engineers are trying to overcome this problem by studying ants.
The Cataglyphis is an ant found in the Sahara Desert. Unlike other ants, the Cataglyphis doesn't rely on pheromone trails to navigate through its environment. Scientists believe that the ants use a combination of visual piloting, path integration and systematic search [source: Möller et al.]. Engineers hope that by gaining a deeper understanding of how creatures like the Cataglyphis navigate, they can build robots with similar capabilities.
In 2000, Walt Disney Pictures released a new edit of "Fantasia." The updated film contained several new sequences, one of which featured a pod of humpback whales that take flight to the strains of "The Pines of Rome" by Ottorino Respighi. While we're not likely to see humpback whales take to the skies, the fantastical sequence presaged an actual scientific discovery.
In May 2004, a group of scientists and engineers published a scientific paper in the Physics of Fluids journal. The team had built models of the pectoral flippers on a humpback whale. On one model they included tubercles -- the bumps you'd find on an actual whale's flipper. On another model they used a smooth surface.
They tested both models in a wind tunnel at the U.S. Naval Academy. Their tests showed that the flipper with the tubercles saw an 8 percent improvement in lift. In addition, the flipper was less likely to experience stall at steep wind angles and created up to 32 percent less drag.
Could we soon see airplanes with bumpy wings? It's entirely possible. The team's findings suggest that nature has created an efficient device for moving through fluid environments. It might be foolish not to take advantage of these discoveries.
There are hundreds of other examples of how nature has guided technological development throughout human history. So the next time you need to solve a complex technical issue, you might just want to take a look in your own back yard first.
Learn more about technology and nature on the next page.
Kernza is a wheat-like grain that doesn't have to be replanted each year, making it the ideal crop to aid in the fight against climate change and help to feed the world.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- BBC News. "Mouse brain simulated on computer." April 27, 2007. (April 10, 2009) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/6600965.stm
- Butler, Rhett. "Biomimetics, technology that mimics nature." Mongabay.com. July 11, 2005. (April 8, 2009) http://news.mongabay.com/2005/0711-rhett_butler.html
- Garcia, M. A. Porta et al. "Optimal Path Planning for Autonomous Mobile Robot Navigation Using Ant Colony Optimization and a Fuzzy Cost Function Evaluation." Analysis and Design of Intelligent Systems using Soft Computing Techniques. Springer Berlin/Heidelberg. Vol. 41, 2007.
- Hill, Deborah. "Mimicking humpback whale flippers may improve airplane wing design." Bio-Medicine. May 11, 2004. (April 9, 2009) http://news.bio-medicine.org/biology-news-2/Mimicking-humpback-whale- flippers-may-improve-airplane-wing-design-1527-3/
- Ju, Anne. "Nature-inspired technology creates engineered antibodies to fight specific diseases." PhysOrg. March 25, 2009. (April 8, 2009) http://www.physorg.com/news157222416.html
- Keim, Brandon. "Computer Program Self-Discovers Laws of Physics." Wired. April 2, 2009. (April 10, 2009) http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/04/newtonai.html
- Knight, Will. "Gecko tape will stick you to ceiling." NewScientist. June 2003. (April 10, 2009) http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn3785
- Möller, Ralf et al. "Modeling Ant Navigation with an Autonomous Agent." Proceedings of the fifth international conference on simulation of adaptive behavior on From animals to animals. University of Zurich, Switzerland. 1998. pp. 185 - 194.
- Stephens, Thomas. "How a Swiss invention hooked the world." Swissinfo.ch. Jan. 4, 2007. (April 9, 2009) http://www.swissinfo.org/eng/search/detail/How_a_Swiss_invention_hooked _the_world.html?siteSect=881&sid=7402384