Five human technologies inspired by nature, from Velcro to race cars

Many of humanity’s inventions are inspired by the natural world. Credit: Alessandro De Maddalena/Shutterstock

For over millions of years, nature has developed solutions to adapt to a range of challenges. As the challenges facing humanity become more complex, we see more and more inspiration from nature.

Taking biological processes and applying them to technological and design problems is called bioinspiration. This is a rapidly growing field, and our ability to copy nature is becoming more and more complex. Here are five striking examples where nature has guided human innovation and, in some cases, can lead to even more exciting breakthroughs.

1. Navigation

Using echolocation, bats can fly in complete darkness. They emit sound and ultrasound waves, then track the time and magnitude of their reflection to create three-dimensional spatial maps of their environment.

The sensors that detect obstacles when reversing in many modern cars are inspired by bat navigation. The direction and distance of an obstacle are calculated by emitting ultrasound waves that are reflected from objects in the path of a car.

Sensory navigation technologies have also been proposed to increase the safety of those with impaired vision. Ultrasound sensors placed in the human body will provide sound-based feedback about a person’s surroundings. This will allow them to move more freely, removing the threat of obstacles.

2. Construction equipment

Woodpeckers strike the hard surfaces of trees to forage for food, build a nest, and attract a mate. Construction tools such as handheld hydraulic and pneumatic hammers mimic a woodpecker’s vibrating beak using a frequency roughly equivalent to a woodpecker’s hammering (20 to 25 Hz).

However, the vibration of these power tools can damage the hands of construction workers. In some cases, this can cause vibration of the white finger, a condition in which patients experience persistent numbness and pain in their hands and arms.

Five human technologies inspired by nature, from Velcro to race cars

A piece of paper folded in a zigzag shape can withstand heavy load. Credits: Amin Al-Habaibeh, Author provided.

Research is now investigating how woodpeckers protect their brains from the effects of repeated drilling. One study found that woodpeckers have various shock-absorbing adaptations that other birds don’t.

Their skulls are adapted to be hard and rigid, and their tongues wrap around the back of the skull and are fixed between their eyes. This protects the woodpecker’s brain by softening the impact and vibrations of the hammer blow.

Research like this guides the design of shock absorbers and vibration control devices to protect users of such equipment. The same concept has inspired innovations such as layered shock absorbing structures for building design.

3. Building design

Scallops are mollusks with a fan-shaped, corrugated outer shell. The zigzag shape of these grooves strengthens the structure of the shell, enabling it to withstand high pressure underwater.

The same process is used to increase the strength of a cardboard box by gluing corrugated paper material between the two outer cardboard layers. The addition of a corrugated surface significantly increases a material’s strength, just as a zigzag fold of paper allows it to take on an additional load.

The dome-shaped structure of a scallop shell also allows it to withstand significant loads. This structure is self-supporting as it distributes the weight evenly over the entire dome shape, reducing the load at a single point. This increases the stability of the structure without the need for reinforcing steel beams and has inspired the design of many buildings, including St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

4. Transport aerodynamics

Sharks have two dorsal fins, which provide several aerodynamic advantages. Their winged shape creates a low turbulent area behind them, while counteracting the shark’s roll, thus increasing the efficiency of the shark’s forward motion.

Five human technologies inspired by nature, from Velcro to race cars

Hook and Loop structure under the microscope. Credit: Amin Al-Habaibeh

Shark fins have been copied in motor transport. For example, racing cars use ailerons to both reduce turbulence when traveling at high speed and increase stability when cornering.

Many road cars now have a small “shark fin” on the roof that is used to integrate radio antennas. This reduces friction compared to a traditional pole antenna.

We also took inspiration from nature to increase the efficiency of airplane flight. An owl’s wings serve as a suspension system; They can reduce the effect of turbulence while flying by changing the position, shape and angle of their wings. And research on owl flight could open the door to turbulence-free air travel in the future.

5. Velcro

Velcro’s hook-and-loop fastening mechanism is inspired by the ability of burrs of burdock plants to attach to human clothing.

Plants use burrs to attach seed pods to animals and humans passing by to disperse seeds over larger areas. Burrs have small hooks that interlock with small loops in soft material.

Velcro replicates this by using a strip of fabric along with a strip covered with hooks. When pressed together, the hooks are attached to the loops and fastened together.

Velcro is used on a wide range of products worldwide. According to NASA, it was used during the Apollo missions from 1961 to 1972 to stabilize equipment in space in zero gravity.

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