But today, in the age of simulation and artificial intelligence, how much more can nature teach us?
Some call their work biomimicry, while others prefer the term bio-inspired engineering. Regardless of labels, this week we are looking at five projects and their biological inspirations, revealing how nature continues to offer engineers a guiding hand.
Drones, underwater robots, turbines – biological inspirations frequently influence mechanical devices. A wing configuration or way of moving is immediately identifiable, and its potential is clear. Some creatures, however, are so strange that researchers take a different approach.
The slime mould is a single-cell organism capable of aggregating to spread across several square metres of forest floor. Despite having no brain it can make decisions – after finding food, it builds complex and efficient networks to distribute nutrients.
In 2010 researchers from the University of Oxford and Hokkaido University in Japan found that the slime made networks amazingly similar to the Tokyo transit system when linking up oat flakes positioned like surrounding cities. The network refined over hours, creating an efficient and resilient system.
In an interview with The Verge, Simon Garnier from the Swarm Lab at the New Jersey Institute of Technology suggested this decentralised and reconfigurable process could inform the development of self-driving cars. A similar approach to route finding for fleets of vehicles could help them make the most efficient journeys.
“We are starting to observe the world, nature itself, from a process perspective,” said sustainable technology expert Dr Rupert Soar at a recent biomimicry event hosted by the Royal Academy of Engineering. “The tool that has inspired this is the computer, is programming itself.”
Read part one of Nature's Blueprint, on the dragonfly-inspired Skeeter drone, here.
Read part two, on the sea snake-styled Eelume, here.
Read part three, on the budgie-influenced Quad-Morphing drone, here.
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.