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Though it may be an unfamiliar term to most people, biomimicry, or looking to nature for design inspiration, is not a new approach to solving design challenges. In fact, its guiding principles have served to inspire architectural works, aviation breakthroughs, and consumer products. This collection of images presents some easily recognized inventions and parallel designs found in nature. In some cases, the natural form inspired the human-made form.
The study of evolution has taught us that nature plays no favorites. After 3.8 billion years, the lesson is clear: whether plant, animal, or microbe, an individual's survival depends on being able to adapt to the conditions around it. Vascular plants evolved leaves to collect sunlight to fuel their growth. Birds evolved hollow bones and asymmetrical feathers to enhance flight capabilities. With these and countless other examples of how living things have successfully adapted to life's challenges, scientists and engineers are looking more and more to nature for guidance.
Biomimicry — a word derived from bios, meaning "life," and mimesis, meaning "to imitate" — refers to the study of nature's successful design solutions and the imitation of these designs and processes to solve human problems. There are many examples of human-engineered applications and living things that exhibit similar fundamental characteristics. Sometimes, this happens unintentionally: think of the similarities between a canoe or kayak paddle and a freshwater turtle leg. At other times, the inventor deliberately mimicked something in nature.
Velcro®, known generically as "hook and loop" fasteners, was invented in 1948 by a Swiss engineer, George de Mestral. On returning from a walk with his dog, de Mestral noticed his dog and his trouser legs were covered with seed pods from a cocklebur, a tall weedy plant. Studying a single seed pod under a microscope, he noted it was covered with tiny hooks that readily attached to animal fur or fabric fibers that brushed against it. De Mestral applied the plant's simple but clever seed dispersal strategy to create a strong, safe, easy-to-use, and temporary fastener that could be used in place of shoelaces and zippers. The word "Velcro®" is a combination of "vel-," from the French velours, meaning "velvet", and "-cro," from crochet, which means "hook."
Considering the vast biological diversity on Earth, there is enormous potential for innovation inspired by nature. Research and development is ongoing in a number of engineering fields, including:
Aeronautics — Engineers are looking to successful designs found in nature to build faster, safer, and more efficient flying machines with wings that twist for steering and wing surfaces that "morph" or change in shape in response to variable in-flight conditions.
Robotics — Using insights gained by observing insect flight, engineers are designing a class of miniature unmanned aerial vehicles that can take off from and land in a standing position, fly at very low speeds, and hover like a dragonfly.
Bioengineering — A spider's silk web is light, flexible, and strong. Pound for pound, it is three times stronger than steel. Potential applications for an engineered version include seat belts, bulletproof vests, human ligaments, and construction material.
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