Over time, product design has become more refined; designs from the past often seem cruder and less useful than those of today. As our design knowledge becomes more sophisticated, scientists and designers have looked to nature and its multitude of elegant, sophisticated adaptations for guidance in refining our knowledge further. This use of nature as inspiration for human technology is called Biomimetics, or Biomimicry. Here are 5 examples of technologies that we use today that have been inspired by nature.
One of the older examples of a designer using nature for product inspiration is Velcro. In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral observed the structure of burrs, after finding a number of the seed pods attached to his dog after a walk. He noticed the small hook-like structures on the surface of the burr that allowed it to attach itself to passers-by. After much trial and error, de Mestral finally patented the design that became a wildly popular shoe and clothing fastener, based on the hook and loop structure. Velcro is an example of biomimicry before biomimicry even had a name; using nature for design inspiration is a long-standing trend.
Neural networks generally refer to models of computing that draw inspiration from the neuronal connections in the brain. Computer scientists have built neural networks by creating individual processing units, performing fundamental operations, mimicking the action of neurons. The network is built up by connections between these processing units, much in the same way that neurons connect in the brain. Using this model of computing, scientists have been able to create highly adaptable and flexible programs, which connect in various ways to perform different functions. Most of the applications of neural networks have been experimental thus far, but promising results have been achieved for tasks that require programs to learn and adapt, such as in recognizing and diagnosing forms of cancer.
There are a number of examples of engineers using nature for guidance on efficient methods of propulsion. Many early examples of humans attempting to mimic bird flight met with limited success. However recent innovations have yielded designs like the flying squirrel suit, which allows skydivers and base jumpers to glide horizontally with incredible efficiency. Recent experiments have also uncovered fuel efficiencies in air travel by arranging planes in a V formation that mimics bird migration.
Air travel isn't the only beneficiary of biomimicry, engineers have also used water propulsion in nature as design guidance. A company called BioPower Systems has developed a system to harness tidal power by using oscillating fins inspired by the efficient propulsion of large fish like sharks and tuna.
Natural selection often shapes the surfaces of organisms in interesting ways to adapt them to the environment where they reside. Designers have picked up on these adaptations and are finding new uses for them. Lotus plants have been found to be highly adapted to the aquatic environment. Their leaves have a waxy coating that repels water, and the flowers have microscopic scaly structures that prevent dirt and dust from adhering. A number of designers are using the "self-cleaning" properties of the lotus to create durable products. One company has used these properties to create a paint with a microscopically textured surface that will help repel dirt from the outside of buildings.
Nanotechnology refers to the design and creation of objects on an atomic or molecular scale. As humans don't operate in these scales, we have often looked to nature for guidance on how to build things in this tiny world. The tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) is a tiny tube-like particle that has been used as a building block to create larger nanotubes and fiber type materials. Viruses have resilient structures and can often withstand wide ranges of pH and temperature. Nanowires and nanotubes built upon virus designs can potentially serve as drug delivery systems that can withstand extreme environments.