The origin of Velcro is probably the most well-known example of biomimicry. In the late 1940s, Swiss engineer George de Mestral and his dog would return home from frequent hikes with the burrs of burdock plants stuck to their clothes and fur, respectively.
The curious inventor examined the burr's spiky tips were hooked, so he created a fastening system of hooks and loops to intertwine. Velcro, named so for velour and crochet, didn't really catch on until NASA developed a version for astronauts' spacesuits.
Years earlier, in 1934, Englishman Percy Shaw patented the "cat's eye" road reflector after noticing a feline's glowing eyes in his headlights one night.
The fastest land animal, the cheetah, can hit nearly 60 mph, accelerating to top speed in 3 seconds. That type of efficiency and power is too tempting for engineers to pass up.
In 2012, Boston Dynamics' Cheetah robot broke Usain Bolt's speed record by reaching 28.3 mph, though it was on a treadmill and was attached to a power source. It did prove, however, that researchers were on the right track with an algorithm mimicking the cheetah's gait and how it flexes its back while it runs.
MIT has its own Cheetah, which acts like world-class sprinters by increasing their ground force to increase strides as opposed to cycling their legs, according to MIT professor Sangbae Kim. In 2014, this mecha-cat could hurdle obstacles while completely untethered, a huge leap forward for robots everywhere.
The sleek new Cheetah 3, unveiled earlier this week at the tech crunch conference, seems prepared to fulfill its DARPA-funded destiny by being an agile and quick first responder for future disasters similar to Fukishima. The bot can balance on three legs and use the fourth to activate buttons, open doors, or maul the faces off mutants created in the next horrible meltdown.
Carnegie Mellon (left)
For its entry in the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge, which required the robot to turn valves, connect a hose, and drive a car, Carnegie Mellon picked humanity's closest relative. Called CHIMP (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform), the anthropomorphic bot finished third in the competition, using its long arms and primitive posture to recover from falling down.
The anthropomorphic bot finished third in the competition, using its long arms and primitive posture to recover from falling down, the only competitor to accomplish that feat.
The Lotus Effect
Animal isn't the only kingdom to crib from. Plants are rife with innovation as well. Drop water on a lotus leaf and it simply beads up and rolls off. that's because at the micron level, the graceful plant's leaves are actually pretty jagged.
The Lotus Effect
UNIVERSITÁ DEGLI STUDI DI PARMA
This creates air pockets that prevent the water droplets, and any bacteria living in the liquid from sticking to the surface. The company TresClean has etched the pattern in stainless steel to make an anti-microbial surface.
The Rind Stuff
cdfa.ca.gov/ Popular Mechanics
Pomelos weigh up to 4 lb. and can remain intact after a four-story drop. The impact-absorbing secret is skin-deep: a foamy fiber composite. Scientists applied its makeup to a high-strength aluminum hybrid that is both durable and tough to deform. A possible use is safety devices in cars.
Go with the Flow
Australian Entrepreneur Jay Harman has been obsessed with biomimicry since the '90s, noticing how natural occurring shapes and patterns, especially in the sea, moves so efficiently. His company PAX Water Technologies created a water mixer based on the spiraling calla lily. The 8-in. tall mixer can circulate millions of gallons of water expending the same energy as three 100-w light bulbs.
Harman's vortical technology also employs the naturally occurring golden ratio, seen in the shells of some nautilus shells. For more examples of biomimicry as a business model, check out his book The Shark's Paintbrush.
Biggest Brain in the Briny Sea
Judging by how adept the octopus is at problem solving and escaping its confines, their aren't many tasks the unsettlingly intelligent cephalopod can't accomplish with its giant brain and eight prehensile arms. One it hasn't completed (yet) is the Rubik's Cube, but most humans have trouble with that puzzle.
A Firm Grip
The way an octopus can grab and manipulate objects without a bone in its body intrigued automation solution manufacturer Festo AG. In March, the German company unveiled the OctopusGripper, a soft robotics end effector that may solve the picking problem of handling various shapes with one device.
Read our feature story on the OctopusGripper here.
The OctopusGripper's outer surface is soft silicone, which covers a textile material that fills with pneumatics, up to 2 bar, to provide movement. As the air chamber expands, the OctopusGripper begins to curl around an object like a real octopus would. And it's completely safe to use around people.
Trunk-ating the Industrial Design Process
Festo developed an innovation pipeline called the Bionics Learning Network to link Festo to institutions, universities, startups, and inventors and shorten the time it takes to mature a biomimicry project.
And sometimes they build on past projects.
The elephant trunk-based Bionic Handling Assistant from 2010 helped pave the way for the BionicMotionRobot, the flexible arm that the OctopusGripper is attached to.
Trunk-ating the Industrial design Process
The Bionic Handling Assistant, comprising 3D-printed parts and a three-pronged gripper based on a fish fin, has generated a lot of interest and curiosity, but there's only one real practical use in the field...
...to Defeat Spider-Man!
Just kidding. Dr. Octopus has allegedly reached out to Festo, but they would never consider dealing arms to one of Spider-man's greatest foes. However, they have been working with a chameleon.
Evolution has been kind to the chameleon. The master of adaption can change its color to camouflage for hunting and hiding, and its eyes move independently from each other for monocular or binocular vision, making it difficult to sneak attack. Then there's that tongue, which darts out to catch bugs.
While the speed and accuracy are impressive, it's the tip of the tongue that Festo was interested in. When hitting its prey, the middle retracts and the edges move forward to embrace the catch. This method was implemented in the FlexShapeGripper, which has a double-acting cylinder and water-filled silicone cap As the piston moves, the water chamber pulls in like the tip of the chameleon's tongue. More precise gripping can be achieved via a proportional valve that controls force and deformation.
More precise gripping can be achieved via a proportional valve that controls force and deformation. This allows the FlexShapeGripper to pick up virtually any shape, even a coffee cup and the spoon used to stir it.
Roo the Day
Festo's BionicKangaroo uses pneumatic and electrical drive technology to harnesses the springy marsupial's ability to recycle kinetic energy after landing from a big jump. The 7-kg prototype can jump as far as 80 cm and as high as 40 cm using Festo components including the DSNUP 20 pneumatic lightweight cylinder and quick-acting valves.
Ants are some of the most industrious animals around, using power and teamwork to build giant mounds overnight or infest your cupboards. The BionicANT (Autonomous Networking Technologies) models operate via a control algorithm that coordinates the imitation insects' piezo-ceramic bending transducers to move their legs and gripping jaws. These ants don't work all day like their living counterparts, but their batteries do last for 40 minutes.
Affordable High Rises
Bob Peterson/ Flickr
Wasps are some of most nature's most industrious builders, using found wood fibers held together by their own spit to make lofty nurseries for their kin, separated into strong hexagonal rooms for each larva. When workers hatch, they immediately start helping build a bigger empire. They are like the Trumps of the insect world in that respect.
Affordable Mud Huts
As all these nests need is a pulpy material and binder, it's sort of a very primitive 3D-prinitng process, with the wasp's mouth as the extruder. An Italian project called WASP (World’s Advanced Saving Project) has taken this same concept of "zero-mile" homes, made completely of materials from the surrounding area. In one of its first demonstrations, a giant 12-meter 3D printer called the BigDelta WASP was made to build an adobe home
An insect you may not expect industry to copy, because you've probably never heard of it, is the jewel beetle. Also, from the diverse, isolated continent of Australia, this bling bug has chemical sensors to detect fires up to 50 miles away. They fly towards them to lay their eggs in the burnt trees soft, defenseless bark. Harnessing this ability into low-cost fire detectors could warn both large manufacturing plants and developing nation's villages with plenty of time to evacuate.
Dr. Emily Kennedy had worked with jewel beetles in New South Wales before going to the University of Akron to become the first person to receive a doctorate in biomimicry there. After working with soap company GOJO to develop an energy-efficient automatic dispenser based on the human heart, she made the obvious jump into launching a company based on hedgehogs to prevent concussions.
Kevin Terrell/Associated Press
No, seriously. In 2014, she and some other fellows in the nascent biomimicry doctorate program had wanted to solve the problem of concussions in football. It turns out giant professional athletes running headfirst at each other while running as fast as they can can causes brain damage, which studies show is bad for you. They investigated big horn sheep and woodpeckers before finding an unlikely hero.
As it turns out, hedgehogs have developed a secondary defense mechanism via their spiny skin besides being prickly. When balled up, they have incredible impact resistance, which comes in handy when they are running at sonic speeds and take a tumble, or if they are just clumsy and fall off a cliff.
A microscopic scan of his cousin's dead hedgehog proved this. More three-point bending and impact tests followed, along with fabricating clay and 3D-printed models. No live drop tests were done, though.
The individual spines are resilient and load bearing, explains mechanical engineer Nathan Swift, who worked on the project.
"They kind of they overlap each other and when there's an impact they sort of like domino into each other and spread the load in all directions," he says.
The research has been so promising that the group formed Hedgemon to commercialize the discovery. The first product may be a helmet insert for football helmets and hard hats.
"The twisting and turning movement of your head and brain has been linked much more closely with concussions then translational movement," Swift says. "Our insert allows for compression as well as this rotational give."
The impact-resistant insert is currently being proven and optimized, and could also be used for packaging and automotive molding. Visit Hedgemon.net for more info.
Animal Emergency Center
This dog had a similar idea, but went to product testing far too early in the process.
Check back for Updates!
That's all we have for now, but we'll keep on building this as more ideas and innovations appear. We suggest you take an afternoon to watch some Planet Earth, get inspired, and try to come up with the next possibly world-changing idea.
We'll leave you with this final though on biomimicry from Jay Harman, who has been doing this for two decades:
“Nature has already solved virtually every problem that humans experience. Manufacturing is a particularly ripe industry for bio-inspired innovation, because gathering raw materials and assembling them into functioning subsystems and systems while using the minimum of materials and energy are some of the most common processes in nature.”