Mimicking nature is at the heart of a growing interest in designing tech solutions that are not only better performing but also more eco-friendly, spanning sectors from medicine to robotics.

Learning from what nature has perfected is what biomimetics is all about. This concept, which got its name in the last century, has been influencing the creation of human-made wonders for ages, from the genius of Leonardo da Vinci to today’s scientists and inventors.

It’s about looking closely at how living things work and the strategies they use to inspire and boost our technological game, making things work better and be more sustainable on all fronts – environmental, social, and economic. Take artificial photosynthesis, for example, which borrows from nature’s playbook to generate and store energy.

Biomimetics is making waves in loads of areas: medicine, energy solutions, architecture, and robotics, to name a few. Robotics, in particular, is seeing a lot of nature-inspired breakthroughs, paving the way for smarter AI systems and more efficient computing techniques.

Imitating and reproducing what happens in nature is what biomimetics is all about. This field has been sparking ideas in people for thousands of years and is still a go-to for science, research, and loads of areas, from power generation to biomedical engineering.
The possibilities hidden within biomimetics are closely looked at to push forward all sorts of cool, advanced tech systems like biohybrid robots and tiny electronic components on the micro and nano scale. There’s also a bunch of work going into AI systems that get their cues from nature.
Seeing nature as a guide and a well of inspiration can help us tackle the future in a way that’s smarter and greener, coming up with tools that do their job better and more efficiently in loads of different areas.

Examples of biomimetics

The term biomimetics comes from Otto Herbert Schmitt, an engineer, biophysicist, and inventor who came up with it back in the 1950s. He was working on a research project aiming to make a physical device that could copy the electrical behavior of a nerve. The Biomimicry Institute says that  «biomimetics takes lessons from nature’s strategies to sort out human design problems», which is pretty crucial nowadays with the climate crisis and the push for solutions that are both less harmful and more effective.

As a field of study, it’s been throwing ideas and inspiration at human creativity, helping us move forward. Take the energy sector, for example, where the design of wind turbine blades was inspired by the bumpy fins of humpback whales, as noted by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, or transport, highlighted by the Shinkansen, one of the world’s fastest trains, which got its sleek, long nose from looking at the kingfisher.

This bird, known for diving into water without a splash thanks to its beak’s shape, inspired the train’s designer, Eiji Nakatsu, to tackle the loud noise it made coming out of tunnels. By using a supercomputer for crunching the numbers from tests and analyses, the Shinkansen Series 500 managed to cut air pressure by 30% and electricity use by 15%, also bumping up the speed by 10% compared to earlier models [Source: Japan for Sustainability].

Biomimetics in electronics and robotics

Biomimetics is right at the center of lots of research that’s already making big waves or looks set to shake things up in loads of areas.

Take electronics, for instance. There’s some really cool work going into making chips that work more like brains – these are called neuromorphic chips. Then in the world of MEMS, which stands for MicroElectroMechanical Systems and is a big deal for all sorts of tech, there’s this neat project where they looked at how crickets sense things to make a MEMS accelerometer that’s even better than the usual stuff [Droogendijk et al.].

If we go even smaller, down to the nano level, there are more examples where tech meets biomimetics. Like with Lab-on-a-chip (LOC) devices – these tiny labs that can handle DNA, proteins, and cells are getting some bioinspired upgrades.

And don’t forget about robotics. Starting at the nano scale again, in the biomedical world, researchers have come up with flexible nanorobots inspired by spermatozoa. This work was shown off by a team from Beihang University in a piece called “Artificial flexible sperm-like nanorobot based on self-assembly and its bidirectional propulsion in precessing magnetic fields” that got into Nature.

There’s also this cool project by Elisabetta Chicca at the University of Groningen, where they’re trying to figure out insect brains to make computers that don’t eat up as much power. They shared their findings in Nature Communications with “Finding the gap: neuromorphic motion-vision in dense environments”, showing how they’re mimicking the dodging skills of birds and bugs at high speed with limited brain power, and turning that into a tiny robot.

The outcome? Pretty promising. Not only did their mini robot pull off some insect-style moves, but the whole experiment is giving clues on how bugs get their jobs done so efficiently. Now, they’re thinking about making a tiny chip that could do some of a computer’s work but simpler and with less energy.

Biohybrid robots

When it comes to merging biomimetics with robotics, biohybrid robots are where it’s at. Simon R Anuszczyk and John O Dabiri from Caltech got inspired by jellyfish and their smooth moves through the deep blue to work on “cyborg oceans” that could help us figure out the mysteries of the underwater world – a place we hardly know because it’s just so tricky to explore.

With climate change messing with the oceans more each day, it’s super important to have tools that can check out more of the sea, and faster.

These Caltech folks managed to get jellyfish muscle to react to implanted electronics, creating robotic jellyfish that can swim on command. They even tweaked the jellyfish design with a 3D-printed part to make them swim better and carry more – up to 105% more, in fact.

Basically, they’re thinking of using jellyfish as a platform for sensors that can go all over the ocean, even down to the darkest depths.

The team made sure to work with ethics experts to keep their tech on the up and up. They’ve pointed out that, «unlike a lot of robotic exploration gear that’s held back by cost, energy needs, or just the tough conditions out at sea, their jellyfish setup is affordable, efficient, and takes advantage of where jellyfish naturally hang out. These biohybrid robots have shown they could really broaden the scope of how we keep tabs on the changing oceans».

Bio-inspired artificial intelligence

Bio-robotics, artificial neural networks, and swarm intelligence aren’t just cool tech terms—they’re real-deal examples of bio-inspired AI. This is where computer science meets biology to create new algorithms and tech tricks inspired by nature’s own systems.

Think of it like biomimetics. That’s when we look at how plants and animals tackle their problems or tasks and try to copy them. In a similar way, AI systems get to grips with their surroundings by gathering, crunching, and making sense of data. They figure out the best moves to make to hit their goals, ready to face more and more complex challenges.

Take the Biomimetic Robotics Lab at MIT in Boston, for example. They’ve been diving into making dynamic handling better by working on low-latency sensors that can do multiple things at once. They’re using neural networks to figure out force and where something’s touching just from the vibes coming off barometric pressure sensors. The next step? Making these sensors tiny enough to fit on your fingertips.

Over at the Arizona State University Biomimetic Center, led by Ted Pavlic, a whiz in industrial engineering and computer science, they’re mixing biomimicry with AI to see what’s possible. One of their big projects is looking into how ant colonies pull together to manage risky situations, tackle problems, handle colony risks, and split up work efficiently.

This could open up new ways for us to work smart in tough spots. Pavlic and his team are all about using AI to help make smarter decisions and actions. For instance, they’re looking into programming a bunch of quadcopters with bug-like brains. These drones could use a bunch of sensors to scout out areas hit by earthquakes or other dangers, smartly avoiding crashes and spotting people who might need help. They could also team up to bring water, food, and medical supplies to those hurt, and call in other robots for extra help if needed.

Glimpses of Futures

Seeing biomimetics as a go-to for creating tech that’s not just smarter but also greener is getting a lot of buzz for facing what’s ahead. From tackling the big questions brought up by the climate crisis and clean energy development to the chance of making life all-around better, blending biomimicry with research and tech innovation might just be the ticket to eco-friendly solutions that really work.

Using STEPS matrix, let’s try to anticipate future scenarios to analyze what consequences the adoption of biomimicry could have in the research and development of the technological solutions of the future.

S – SOCIAL: biomimetics could lead us to whip up more efficient and newfangled systems and gadgets in health, building, transport, and energy sectors, boosting how we live and making it easier to get to essential services and goodies. Just in material science, biomimetic materials are popping up as cool alternative options for stuff like tissue engineering and healing medicine.

T – TECHNOLOGICAL: getting ideas from Mother Nature is sparking the invention of new tech solutions. In the medical world, folks are crafting biomimetic neural networks to see epileptic seizures coming, a brainchild of research titled “Biomimetic Deep Learning Networks With Applications to Epileptic Spasms and Seizure Prediction,” fresh off the press this month from a team at the University of Toronto. This mix of tech innovation and biomimicry is also throwing up new ideas in other areas, like design (think Autodesk and Airbus coming up with a 3D-printed bit for plane cabins that’s inspired by the inner workings of living beings) and energy. Speaking of energy, don’t forget about stuff like artificial photosynthesis and nuclear fusion, inspired by how the sun and stars do their thing, seen as the clean, green power sources of the future that loads of scientists and techies are already on.

E – ECONOMIC: the buzz around biomimicry is only getting louder: ResearchandMarkets reckons the special global market for it will double from $26.3 billion in 2022 to $53.6 billion by 2027. And that’s not even touching the expected $3 billion market for non-medical biomimetic robots by 2026, as predicted by Persistence Market Research.

P – POLITICAL: biomimetics is all about borrowing from nature to come up with more efficient and planet-friendly tech and solutions. Politically, this means policies that focus on keeping our environment in tip-top shape and pushing for green practices in energy, transport, and building. That’s the whole idea behind the European Green Deal, aimed at safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystems (hence the Nature Restoration Law), cutting down emissions to reach Net Zero by 2050, moving towards energy transition, and encouraging a shift to a circular economy.

S – SUSTAINABILITY: the use of biomimetics can play a crucial role in supporting efforts to achieve sustainable development goals. It’s possible to draw from natural models to develop adaptation strategies to changes (primarily climate changes), but also to generate tools and solutions capable of having a minimal or even zero impact. For example, one might consider nature-based solutions capable of helping reduce hydrogeological risk or achieve sustainable neighbourhoods or cities. Alternatively, one could look at flexible biomimetic sensors, advanced biosensors characterised by high sensitivity, selectivity, stability, and reliability for detection in complex natural and physiological environments.

Written by:

Andrea Ballocchi

Giornalista Read articles Look at the Linkedin profile