How Biomimicry Works

Human attempts to create effective flying machines often involved studying how birds fly.
Human attempts to create effective flying machines often involved studying how birds fly.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Submarines of the future speed through the water with the help of wiggling fish fins. Aircraft ascend through the clouds with flapping wings. In the desert, a climber steadily approa­ches the summit of a cliff, open palms effortlessly sticking to rock with the use of gecko-inspired nanotechnology. You've probably only encountered such nature-inspired future technologies in the imagined worlds of science fiction and comic books, but the design approach already exists. Inventors and engineers have been looking to nature for inspiration ever since prehistoric times.

Early humans learned hunting, shelter and survival techniques by observing animals as they interacted with their surroundings. While humans lacked the fierce claws and superior hunting instinct of bears, people could mimic their techniques. And as humans began to design ever-more complicated contraptions, they continued to look to nature's example. From Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century sketches of flying machines to the Wright brothers' first successful prototype four centuries later, dreams of human flight centered on observing birds.

The world is full of amazing biological innovations, each one the product of millions of years of evolution. When designing technologies, it only makes sense to study the ways in which nature has already mastered the challenges involved. Today, we know this as biomimetics or biomimicry -- the practice of imitating models in nature to create better forms, processes, systems and strategies.

You encounter examples of biomimicry every day, perhaps without even realizing it. Velcro technology, for instance, was inspired by the way burred seed pouches cling to animal fur. Modern hypodermic needles take a few pointers from rattlesnake fangs. Nike has even ­applied the qualities of goat hoof traction to their running shoe designs.

In this article, we'll explore the ways in which biomimicry bridges the disciplines of biology and engineering, using the innovations of the natural world to improve technology and design.