5 Cool Tech Innovations "Bioinspired" by Animals

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

A neonate Colorado desert sidewinder moves across the sand. Green regions show static contact with the sand, yellow regions are lifted above the sand and moving, and blue denotes its tracks.

Throughout history, humans have turned to nature as a source of inspiration for new ideas and inventions. But it’s been only recently that so-called "bioinspiration"—using biological phenomena to fuel scientific innovation—began receiving widespread recognition.

Today, bioinspiration is sparking amazing ideas and bringing together scientists from different disciplines to achieve advances in medicine, engineering, environmental conservation, and many other fields. It’s not always easy to transform an interesting idea into a practical solution, but here are some cool innovations inspired by animal characteristics.

1. The Gecko's hairy toes inspired an adhesive used in medicine and robotics.

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Ever wondered how geckos are able walk, climb and rest on seemingly any surface, even upside down? The pads of their toes have millions of tiny hair-like fibers that create a molecular attraction (based on the van der Waals force) with the surface on which the gecko treads.

Scientists have studied this phenomenon to develop artificial adhesives that can support weight far heavier than that of a gecko, yet still release easily to allow smooth movement. Those adhesives have a wide range of applications, from robots that can climb and pick up large objects, to stronger waterproof surgical bandages.

2. Shorebird beaks inspired a "fog-harvesting" system that can collect water in arid areas.

What if fog could be captured to help California and other drought-stricken regions meet their water demand? Last year, a team of engineers at the University of Texas at Arlington announced a new design for a fog-harvesting system that’s based on the beaks of shorebirds.

Made of two glass plates, the hinged “beak” opens and closes just like a shorebird filtering water to collect food. Fog travels over the plates, condensation forms, and the droplets get channeled into a storage system. Researchers say the prototype could be scaled up to collect water anywhere fog is common—which happens to be a lot of coastal deserts and drought-prone parts of the world.

3. A rattlesnake's sideways slither inspired snake robots that may one day explore planets.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have for years experimented with robotic snakes capable of slithering through hard-to-access places. But a couple of things had them stumped, like how to get robots to make quick sharp turns and slither easily up hills of sand like sidewinding rattlesnakes.

So the researchers teamed up with Georgia Tech scientists to try and figure out how sidewinders moved their muscles simultaneously in vertical and horizontal waves to navigate less solid terrain, then tested the movements out on their own modular snake robot. They hope it will lead to robots that can perform challenging feats like search-and-rescue missions, power plant inspections and, one day perhaps, exploration of other planets.

4. A parasitic fly inspired hearing aids and nano microphones.

Hearing aid users know what a drag it is to turn them up in order to follow a conversation, only to have every other background sound amplified too. Who knew that a parasitic fly held the secret to a better hearing aid? (Most flies don't hear at all.) Several teams of researchers studied the Ormia ochracea fly, which uses sound pressure to determine with great accuracy the location of crickets. 

By studying O. ochracea, scientists have been able to design the tiniest of microphones, which, like the fly’s hearing mechanism, perceive sound pressure. The mic then pivots in the direction of that sound to amplify it without increasing ambient sound.

5. The boneless Octopus inspired a surgical device that can squeeze through small passages.

The undulating, boneless tentacles of an octopus can squeeze into virtually any space—a handy feature when you’re trying to find food in small, rocky crevices. That made the octopus an ideal model for STIFF-FLOP, a robotic surgical device that can assist in minimally invasive surgeries by maneuvering through tight passages in the body, adjusting its texture and stiffness to avoid damaging tissue and organs. The project, funded by the European Union, aims to minimize post-operative scarring and go easier on the patient’s immune system.