Technology makes our lives easier and more fulfilling. We can do things faster and more efficiently than ever before. This is no secret.
We have our GPS, which makes it less likely we’ll find ourselves out in the middle of nowhere (unless, of course, that is where we would like to be). It’s easier and faster to stay in touch and communicate with others we work with, family members on the other side of the globe, and those individuals who share our unusual fascination for things like duct tape art and collecting elongated coins. Technology has also allowed us to reach new feats in medical research and data collection. The list could continue for pages, but I won’t offer an exhaustive list (at least, not in this short post).
Throughout history, philosophers, scientists, and scholars, have recognized the influence nature has had on technological innovation. The most notable testimony of this insight is from ancient Greece— “technology learns from or imitates nature (Plato, Laws X 899a ff.). According to Democritus, for example, house-building and weaving were first invented by imitating swallows and spiders building their nests and nets, respectively” (source, section 1.1).
In my most recent post (in the spirit of celebrating National Great Outdoors Month) I posed the question of whether technology can bring us closer to nature. Now, I think it would be interesting to think of the ways that nature has inspired technological innovation. This will help us better understand why we innovate gadgets, gizmos, and apps.
Questions for Meditation:
What advances in technology in the modern age are inspired by nature? Is this important to consider when innovating technology? If so, why?
Leonardo da Vinci seemed to think so. He studied bats and birds, and sketched flying contraptions that mimicked the shape and mobility of their wings (source). Da Vinci is notorious for using what we now call biomimicry (an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies).
Da Vinci stated, “Necessity is the mistress and guide of nature.” If we presume (like da Vinci) that necessity drives nature, would it benefit us to think that necessity should then drive technological innovation? Is technological innovation most successful when it is driven by nature, which is driven by necessity?
Necessity –> Nature –> Technology ?
Below are some modern examples of nature inspiring technological innovation:
Burrs & Velcro
“After a hunting trip in the Alps in 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral’s dog was covered in burdock burrs. Mestral put one under his microscope and discovered a simple design of hooks that nimbly attached to fur and socks.” (source) Voila, Velcro was born.
Kingfisher Bird & Shinkansen Bullet Train
Engineers were concerned with the sonic boom that train riders would experience after a high speed train they were inventing emerged from tunnels. After engineer Nakatsu observed the Kingfisher bird in nature, the problem was resolved.
“The Kingfisher is a type of bird that dives from the air, which has low resistance, into high-resistance water, and incredibly does it without splashing. Nakatsu thought the reason was the streamlined shape of its beak. They conducted tests to measure pressure waves arising from shooting bullets of various shapes into a pipe. The data showed that the ideal shape for this Shinkansen is almost identical to a kingfisher’s beak! They then fitted the front of the train with a design similar to the kingfisher’s beak, and the problem with the sonic booms was gone.” (source)
Bees & Drones
Drone designers are now looking to bees to help them better understand how to make drones more efficient at navigating airspace.
“…motion-direction detecting circuits could be wired together to also detect motion-speed. This is how bees control their flight — and could very well be the future of how drones behave, too.” (source)
Gecko Skin & Robots
“NASA has been learning a few tricks by observing the gecko.
Tiny hairs on their feet allow these small lizards to grip and climb walls – and they don’t lose their stickiness over time. The harder they press their feet, the stickier they become.
Aaron Parness and colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena have developed a material containing minute synthetic hairs that stick to a surface when a force is applied to make the hairs bend.
Prototype objects have been developed which might in future be able to act as anchors on board the International Space Station – but the technology may also be able to be used on its exterior, by repair or inspection robots.”
Using the same principle, researchers at Stanford University in the US have developed tiny robots that can drag more than 2,000 times their own weight. (source)
Butterfly Wings & E-readers
“Researchers developing color displays for e-readers are taking inspiration from an unlikely source: butterfly wings. Qualcomm MEMS Technologies created the first full-color, video-friendly e-reader prototype based on the way butterfly wings gleam in bright light. The display, known as Mirasol, works by reflecting light, instead of transmitting light from behind the screen the way LCD monitors do. The new type of screen can be read in bright sunlight and has longer battery life.” (source)
Firefly Light Bulbs
“When insects of the genus Photuris light fires in their bellies, the radiance is amplified by their anatomy — sharp, jagged scales, according to research published in January  by scientists from Belgium, France, and Canada.
Based on this observation, the scientists then built and laid a similar structure on a light-emitting diode (LED), which increased its brightness by 55 percent.” (source)
Algae & Biofuel
“Depending on your favorite species, algae can be eaten, burned for heat, or used to produce hydrogen, methane, biodiesel, or plain old fertilizer. Algae is so prolific, and comes in so many varieties, that it’s actually a chore to isolate your preferred species for cultivation out of a water sample from the wild. The best part is that algae soaks up the sun and lots of CO2 to work its magic. That’s two forms of renewable energy used to produce fuels or foods (sushi anyone?) in high demand.” (source)
What would you add to this list? Do you think that technology inspired by nature is inspired by necessity?