In a reality governed by nature, solutions cover the world…
About 3.7–4.4 billion years ago, microbes left clues of their presence on Earth. It’s one of the earliest signs of life on this planet. Through billions of years of revolutionary coincidences and evolution, nature selected those with the fittest biological designs to survive and continue to reproduce. These designs are what allowed Peregrine Falcons to swift dive 200 miles per hour, Mantis Shrimps to pack a punch with the force of a a.22 caliber bullet, and Dung Beetles to be as strong as a human lifting 80 tonnes. With such incredibly structured creations, the unique features of lifeforms can’t be missed as inspiration in solving the problems we face.
The Case of Solving with Nature
Biomimicry is using the observations of the structures and systems of organisms from nature to mimic strategies and solve design challenges humans face. The term appeared back in 1982 and has applied to what you’ve likely seen in your life at some point:
- Solar panels inspired by plants.
- Needles inspired by mosquitos.
- Airplanes inspired by birds.
- Treehouses inspired by Baobab Trees.
With that in mind, there are three ways to how we mimic nature: ecosystems, processes, and shapes.
Mimicking Ecosystems — Prairies
Modern agricultural practices are intensively productive, but this doesn’t apply in the long term. The abundant fertilizer inputs, pesticide inputs, and constant irrigation crops need drain and pollute clean water and healthy soil resources. Plentiful crops require habitat destruction at this point, right? Wrong. If you take a peek into any natural ecosystem, you will notice a brilliant system of food production.
For example, a prairie. They are large, mostly flat areas of land with some trees and a blanket of grass. It’s productive, self-enriching, resilient, and regenerative. There’s nothing stopping us from mimicking the remarkable qualities of this ecosystem in our design of agricultural practices!
The Land Institute has been using natural prairies as models to work on revolutionizing the foundations of modern agriculture. By using deep-rooted plants that survive year-to-year in agricultural systems, it mimics stable natural ecosystems that can produce equivalent yields of grain. This also maintains or even improves the water and soil resources future agriculture we rely on. It’s a fascinating alternative rather than the weedy crops present in many modern agricultural systems.
Mimicking Processes — Ant Bridges
I bet two Yakults you’ve seen ants. They seem to scatter everywhere when they’re alone, but with their buddies, they can build floating bridges that suspend in mid-air with their bodies.
Ants build their bridges off a simple algorithm. Let’s say an ant marches until it finds a gap in its path. It slows down and the rest of the colony encroaches behind it. Then, two rules pitch in:
- When an ant feels other ants walking on its back, it must freeze. It means if someone is walking over you, you don’t move.
2. When there are too many ants occupied in this bridge-building process and ants walking over the bridge dip below a threshold, the ant unfreezes and rejoins the march.
The first rule is repeated so when the first ant is stepped over, the second ant encounters the gap that’s still there and it slows down until it gets stepped over and freezes. This makes sure the bridge will become long enough to close the gap. The second rule is an indication that too many ants make up the bridge that there isn’t much left traveling over the bridge to do other tasks like foraging.
The process is described as self-assembly, and there’s an entire field of research called Ant Colony Optimization that is dedicated to it. Scientists in the field discover implications for control systems, circuits, computational intelligence, communications, and industrial electronics! Talk about getting inspired by ants!
Mimicking Shapes — Snailfish
The deep-sea has always been mysterious. To explore it, submersibles had been sent there for years with sturdy, metal shells against freezing temperatures and crushing pressure. Recently a research team from eastern China designed a fish robot with a soft body to explore the Mariana Trench, which nearly 11,000 meters below sea level. It navigated for 45 minutes without being damaged by the extreme cold and high pressure!
This new scientific frontier of soft-submersible technology was inspired again by nature, specifically, Snailfish. Snailfish have elongated bodies topped by a relatively large head with tiny eyes. Their extensive dorsal and anal fins may merge or nearly merge with the tail fin. It’s found between the surface of the ocean and 8,000 meters below it.
If the fish robot mimicking Snailfishes are proven to be effective, their low cost would allow scientists to design large schools for them to work together and carry commands!
Human and Nature
We’ve designed and created artificial structures that don’t fit into nature. These structure have created problems, but as long as we keep our minds open to knowledge around us, they can be solved. We may be able to design skyscrapers and robots now, but we still can’t design anything like spring. Nature is our largest source of inspiration and wisdom. Although many believe Earth made man, with biomimicry, perhaps it’s time man makes Earth.