Monthly Archives: June 2015

Stuck To A Wall

BIOMIMICRY

Wall

 As I was stuck to the wall in a warehouse on the outskirts of San Francisco, I did wonder what on earth had brought me here.

The answer to that was Janine Benyus. She is the founder of the Biomimicry Institute and is widely credited with popularising the term biomimicry in her book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

In her book, Benyus suggests looking to Nature as a “Model, Measure, and Mentor” and emphasises sustainability as an objective of biomimicry.

Perhaps the most famous example of man-made technology imitating the processes and ideas of nature is the invention of Velcro.

In 1941, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral returned from a hunting trip with burs clinging to his trousers and tangled in his dog’s coat. When de Mestral examined the seedpods under a microscope, he marvelled at how they bristled with hooks ingeniously shaped to grasp at animal fur. Eventually de Mestral learned to mould nylon into a fabric studded with tiny hooks or loops that acted like artificial burs. With that he had invented Velcro and changed the world of fastening for ever.

So back to why I was stuck on a wall. Perhaps you have guessed already. To show how effective copying nature can be – we found a funfair ride supplier who had a wall made of Velcro. He put me in a rainbow striped suit also made of Velcro and stuck me to the wall.

The idea was that, stuck there, waiting for the cameraman and director to get their shot, I would think of a piece to camera to introduce the film. I had my notes in my hand and while the crew looked for the best angle I would learn some salient facts. The problem of course was that although I was holding my notes, my arm was stuck to the wall and so I couldn’t get my papers anywhere close enough to my face. So for 10 minutes I stayed glued to the wall trying to attract the attention of the crew, who seemed too busy to notice or hear me.

It certainly left me plenty of time to ponder the power of copying nature. Janine now runs a biomimicry consultancy in which advises companies from around the world on how looking to nature may help them develop new products. Amongst her clients are: Boeing, Colgate-Palmolive, Nike, General Electric, Procter and Gamble and Levi’s.

In this programme we visited Munich University of Technology where they’re trying to develop an artificial skin that has the capability to sense just as much as ours can. The work is part of the Walk Again Project, which helps those who are unable to walk to get back on their feet. The project involves developing an exoskeleton – robotic legs that can help people get mobile. The mechanics are heavy and whilst they enable people to move it’s a very disconcerting experience. These are robot legs not yours and so you can’t feel what you’re doing. The artificial skin could make the technology feel more natural.

The skin is used for two functions on the exoskeleton: first, to provide tactile feedback to the user, so that they can feel “their” foot touch the ground (currently this is relayed to the user in the form of vibrations against the back), and secondly to measure stress for the safety of the user

Each cell contains multiple sensors, emulating the various sensory information of human skin, such as pre-touch (feeling something is close to your skin, but not making contact), light touch, medium and strong touch, vibration, and temperature.

From Munich we flew to Cairo where we visited a team developing tiny robots that swim and that may one-day swim around inside of us in order to deliver medicines.

The microrobots measure just 322 micrometers long, 5.2 micrometers wide and 42 micrometers thick, and their heads are coated with a 200-nanometer nickel-cobalt layer that allows them to respond to a magnetic field.

The problem with most Microrobots is that the battery they need to supply the power is often bigger than the robots. This team has tried to get round the problem by using four electromagnetic coils to generate an oscillating field that was as weak as a refrigerator magnet but strong enough to get the tailed robots to waggle and swim.

The inspiration for the design came from looking at sperm. They copied the design because they found it is very efficient in terms of traveling through liquid.

Working for a science and technology programme we often trumpet the designs of very clever scientists. It’s good therefore that in this episode we give credit to the greatest laboratory of all – nature.

Working for a science and technology programme we often trumpet the designs of very clever scientists. It’s good therefore that in this episode we give credit to the greatest laboratory of all – nature.

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