When Animals Inspire Inventions

Whether it’s tiny robots swimming inside our bodies or super-efficient 3D solar panels, nature never stops providing answers

It's not pretty, but it could inspire an amazing medical innovation.
It's not pretty, but it could inspire an amazing medical innovation. Photo courtesy of NOAA

If you had to pick an animal that could end up as the inspiration for one of the more ingenious medical tools of the future, which do you think it would be? Ants, with their amazing sensing skills? What about salamanders, which can replace a lost tail like we would a cell phone? Or bats? They nailed echolocation before our ancestors were walking.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. No, it’s the slimy sea lamprey, a bizarre-looking creature with a round, tooth-filled sucking disk where its face should be. It has no vertebrae, no jaw and a nervous system about as primitive as anything in the sea.

And therein lies its appeal.

A team of scientists at Newcastle University in the U.K. and the National Science Foundation in the U.S. really like that about the sea lamprey, so much so that they’re using it as a model for a tiny robot they’re developing–a robot that one day could swim around inside our bodies looking for diseases.

Pretty strange, eh? The researchers would acknowledge as much, but they think their invention, called Cyberplasm, is years, not decades, away from being used in the real world.

Here’s what they envision: A tiny robot–a half inch long initially, but eventually much smaller–that would have “eye” and “nose” sensors developed from living animal cells and an artificial nervous system that would collect data from its surroundings. It would respond to external stimuli, such as light or chemicals, the same way that biological systems do, and send electronic signals to its artificial muscles, which would be powered by glucose, just as real muscles are.

Because a lamprey’s nervous system is so simple, but complex enough to control a swimming motion, it’s an excellent model for a micro-robot that would be sensitive to its surroundings and move freely around inside a body. That would allow it to check for tumors or blood clots or chemical indicators of various diseases.

“Nothing matches a living creature’s natural ability to see and smell its environment and therefore collect data on what’s going on around it,” says Daniel Frankel, head of the Newcastle part of the research team.

Kinda makes you feel all slithery inside.

Winging it

Humans, of course, have been mimicking animals for thousands of years, dating back to copying how they hunted. Now most of our focus is on design and mechanics, whether it’s stealing the look of a kingfisher’s beak to make bullet trains more efficient or replicating the giant self-cooling mounds of African termites to cut energy costs in office buildings.

The latest inspiration comes from butterfly wings. Chinese scientists wanted to better understand how their design helps keep butterflies warm on cool mornings. What they saw through an electron microscope provided an answer. The wings are made of long rectangular scales that fit together like overlapping shingles on a roof. Also, ridges in the scales had tiny holes that allowed light to filter through to the lower layer. And that helped hold heat.

Which could lead to a very different way of designing solar energy technology. Instead of the flat panels used today, we could see solar arrays that are three-dimensional and more complex, but much more effective.

It’s nature’s way

Here are other recent examples of biomimicry breakthroughs:

  • Where is thy sting?: The U.S. Navy is sponsoring research to develop robotic jellyfish that could be used to help emergency teams in underwater rescue situations. Very cool. But even more innovative is how this underwater robot would be powered–it’s being designed to run on hydrogen taken from sea water.
  • Building a better thumbtack: Mimicking how a cat withdraws its claws, Japanese inventor Toshi Fukaya has invented a safer thumbtack–its point stays covered until you push it into a wall.
  • Sticky business: Scientists have been studying geckos for a while, captivated by their ability to scamper up a vertical wall without slipping a bit. The latest invention they’ve inspired is an adhesive device only 16 inches square that can hold up a flat screen TV.
  • Who knew snails were so cool?: A group of Iranian students has won the Biomimicry Institute’s Student Design Challenge by designing a desert house based on a snail. The building has an overlapping and curvy shell to mimimize the amount of sunlight that hits any part of the roof and buffer zones inside to take advantage of natural ventilation.
  • Follow the robot: If you created a robot fish, would real fish follow it? That’s the thinking behind the swimming robot created by engineers at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute. If it works like they hope it will, it will be able to lead schools of fish away from oil spills or other dangers.

Video bonus: One more tale of animal inspiration. This one could end up in disguising submarines with a surface modeled after squid skin.

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