A couple of years ago, I visited the World Science Festival in New York and saw Festo’s robotic bird. It was amazing. I’ve seen things that looked more or less like a bird, and that flew, but clearly weren’t flying like a bird. An airplane has a body, has wings, and flies, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a bird. This was different: it looked like a giant seagull, with head and tail movements that were clearly modelled on a living bird’s.
Since then, Festo has built a robotic kangaroo; based on work they started in 2010, they have a robotic elephant’s trunk that learns, a robotic jellyfish, and no doubt many other animals that I haven’t yet seen.
Biomimicry, of course, isn’t limited to making animals. We’re in touch with biomimicry every day. Velcro is modeled on plant burrs. A recent slideshow on Bloomberg shows many products that are modeled on nature, products that take advantage of evolution’s ability to optimize.
For some, biomimicry is a matter of life and death. A dialysis machine is clearly a clumsy imitation of a kidney, and artificial hearts are, well, artificial hearts. There are more radical attempts to implement body processes: for example, the Wyss Institute’s lung-on-a-chip, and many other projects.
Why biomimicry? The reasons for building a lung-on-a-chip are more obvious: creating artificial organs has obvious implications for treating disease. Festo’s projects may look like wonderful toys, but there’s a very serious purpose behind them. At the World Science Festival, Festo’s representative said clearly that the company’s business wasn’t developing or building robots; they were research tools, tools for exploring how nature works and how efficient it can be. Natural systems rarely have energy to waste. A hummingbird that weighs a few grams, but yet must migrate from Central America to New England, has absolutely no spare room in its energy budget.
So, the thesis behind biomimicry is that it helps us to build a better world. Whether we’re building replacement organs or designing more efficient aircraft, there’s good reason to believe that nature has some clues about how to do a good job. In the third issue of BioCoder, Luis Rodriguez takes biomimicry in a different direction: the Fibonacci sequence occurs everywhere in nature; can we use the sequence, and the ratios it generates, in our web designs? How do these “organic” layouts compare to traditional designs? You be the judge.
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