What do bird wings and burdock seeds have in common? They both served as inspiration for important technological advances: the shape of a bird wing helped Wilbur and Orville Wright design and build their first flying machines, while the tiny, ultra-annoying hooks on burdock seeds that help them disperse by sticking to EVERYTHING, inspired Swiss engineer George de Mestro to imitate them with his 1940’s invention that we all know and love: Velcro.
These are just two of the better-known examples of biomimicry, whereby humans use the beautiful and efficient designs found in nature, perfected over millions of years of evolution, to come up with inventions and techniques to solve modern human challenges. From studying the complex behaviour of ant colonies to help make human warehousing and parcel delivery more efficient, to looking to an unlikely source of inspiration, the lowly mosquito, to try to design a new, painless needle for human medicine, biomimicry takes the lead from nature to solve the challenges of modern civilization.
This activity can be approached one of two ways:
Can you think of a challenge in your life or in the modern world that needs a solution? Look to nature to find ways that animals or plants deal with a similar problem and design an invention based on nature’s solution to that problem. For example, scientists are always looking for a less painful needle for injections. For a solution they looked to what we would normally consider a pest, the mosquito, whose specially-designed proboscis can not only inject anticoagulants but remove blood, often without us even noticing it. Alternately perhaps you are inspired by an animal or a plant that is just super-cool. What parts or behaviours of that plant or animal could you use to solve a problem you see around you?
An example of this is the fin of a humpback whale, which is covered in large bumps that help streamline the huge animal’s movement through water. Physicists used this design to create more efficient blades for the huge wind turbines that are now helping provide sustainable electrical energy across the planet.