Engineers and researchers looking for the next big thing are turning more than ever to their own back yards for inspiration.
Some are taking clues from the elegance of a falcon's flight, the efficiency of a beetle's muscles and the extraordinary sensory system of a bat on the wing. Biomimetics, a field that looks to nature for inspiration and even raw materials, is exploding in popularity, and it's challenging assumptions about the ability human beings have to shape machines that emulate the natural world.
"Nature can do things that no human-made technology can do," said DARPA's Alicia Jackson, deputy director of the agency's new Biological Technologies Office.
In May, Italian researchers found that backyard spiders, when sprayed with special carbon nanomaterials, start to produce silk that’s even stronger than the super thread they ordinarily use to make their webs. But even the legendary strength of spider silk (exceeding that of steel in comparable threads) is no match for the ultra-hard teeth of the limpet, a tiny sea-dwelling snail that scrapes its meals off underwater rocks, researchers from the University of Portsmouth recently found.
"You're seeing all the advances of biology coming into contact with all the advances in information technology," explained Jackson.
Technology developed in recent years has shrunk computer chips down to microscopic size, and improved imaging technology allows scientists to zoom in and observe the workings of nature down to the molecule.
The result is a veritable avalanche of research as everyone from chemists to roboticists to biologists take a closer look at nature's incredibly refined processes in an attempt to replicate them. Turns out, that can be an incredibly difficult task.
The genius of evolution
"A bat's head weighs about two grams, and it has a complete flying system and complete sonar system inside," said Rolf Mueller, part of a team at Virginia Tech that's investigating the engineering marvel of a bat's brain and senses. "It gets more information from the environment than we are able to, because it's following a different paradigm."
Scientists have long admired bats for their echolocation and flying abilities, but until recently they had very little chance of imitating them.
"For generations and generations, engineers have been trained a certain way, so that's what you're going to get," Mueller said. But by looking at the elegant and compact solutions found in nature, researchers often find completely new ways of approaching a problem. Take a bat's ability to navigate and move with lethal precision using echolocation. The team takes that information, looks at existing air and nautical sonar and radar systems, and tries to figure out the best way to combine the lessons of millions of years of evolution with a few decades of human engineering.
Perhaps some of the coolest-looking examples of bio-inspired tech come from Festo, a manufacturing company based in Germany that has a division dedicated to creating a menagerie of artificial animals. Not that you'd think they were artificial from the way they move.
"I can tell you that the biggest accomplishment for our engineers was the actual deciphering of bird flight," said Festo's Andrea Ziomek in an email. The company created a robot called SmartBird that flies not by the power of some hidden propeller, but by actually flapping its wings. "It took our engineers and external partners 2 years to create this bird."
After all, if you're going to try to get ahead in rapidly growing, multi-billion-dollar markets like robotics and drones, why not take a few lessons from the masters? Similar inspiration has come from chameleons' projectile tongues, ants' self-organizing methods, and the strong, flexible trunk of the elephant (above).
While the resulting wing-flapping is eerily similar to a real bird's, Festo's automaton has nowhere near the level of maneuverability or subtlety of design that you'll find in any gull or crow. The company's newer bionic butterflies are the same way. They could stay aloft for a few minutes, but fly across the country like monarchs? Not a chance.
"Biology is amazing at synthesizing things," Jackson said. Insects in particular, she said, produce materials with astounding physical properties.
"Insect muscles have this stuff called resilin,” Jackson said. “It is 97 percent efficient, meaning only 3 percent of energy is lost as heat. That's something we'd love to take advantage of... but we don't have anything that even comes close to it."
That doesn’t mean they won’t keep trying.
After all, it's only natural.