Our imitation of the living

Our imitation of the living

We have long drawn inspiration from the living world to apply these concepts in various disciplines such as science, engineering, architecture, medicine, and art. It’s about biomimicry. Biomimicry comes from the Greek words “bios” (life) and “mimesis” (imitate). It was coined by Otto Schmitt, a physical engineer, in 1957. This term defines a technological creative form that uses or imitates nature in order to improve human life.

Despite its futuristic appearance, biomimicry has long been observed in our species. Axes and knives, for example, are inspired by animal teeth.

On the left, a photography of a cut two-sided flint dating from the early Paleolithic era inspired by the biomimicry of carnivorous teeth (cranial skeleton on the right).
(Refrence : http://www.musee-prehistoire-idf.fr/biface-silex and https://www.nku.edu/~whitsonma/Bio120LSite/Bio120LReviews/Bio120LAnimalRev.html)

Leonardo da Vinci was also inspired by biomimicry in his work with "his flying machine" inspired by the flight of birds and bats.

On the left, the flying machine designed by Leonardo da Vinci inspired by the biomimicry of the flight of birds and bats (right).
(Sources : http://www.expo-pulaire.fr/10.3AileR.html and https://nuage1962.wordpress.com/2019/11/23/le-saviez-vous-►-les-5-choses-savoir-sur-la-chauve-souris/)



The best-known example, however, remains that of the invention of Velcro in 1940 by the Swiss engineer George de Mestral after observing the burr fruit (Xanthium strumarium) under a microscope. Indeed, it sticks strongly to dog hair, our hair and clothes, the thin and small hooks of these fruits, 1 cm long, allow it to disperse better. George de Mestral then based himself on this hanging system to develop the familiar Velcro which today has many applications in our daily lives.

On the left the Velcro invented by George de Mestral, in the middle the hooks of the burr fruit under the microscope, on the right the whole fruit. (Reference : https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/velcro_how-a-swiss-invention-hooked-the-world/5653568,  https://tpetextileinspireduvivant.wordpress.com/2017/01/22/a-des-textiles-ameliorant-la-vie-quotidienne-mais/ and https://www.flickr.com/photos/capitphil/3233486681)

Another more current biomimicry is the high-speed train in Japan. These trains as they passed through the tunnels produced significant sound effects due to the change in pressure. To overcome this problem, engineers observed the Kingfisher, or kingfisher. This bird, accustomed to changing water / air environments at high speed, has proven to be a good study model. Japanese trains were therefore subsequently fitted with a long nose. The noise level has been drastically reduced as well as there has been an energy gain of 15% electricity and a 10% speed increase.

On the left, the photography of the Japanese high-speed train inspired by the kingfisher on the right. (Source : https://www.pinterest.fr/pin/397724210814397435/)

The great challenge of biomimicry is not only to minimize the energy used, but also to miniaturize or enlarge a process observed in nature. Functional adaptations are also necessary in order to optimally respond to the environment and to the requirements dictated by humans. Another significant example: the world of insects. He taught us a lot and continues to inspire us. Another well-known mechanism is the ant algorithm. A study of their foraging behavior resulted in GPS guidance systems. In the town of Hara, Zimbabwe, Mike Pearce, an architect, built a building based on the model of termite mounds. They are eusocial insects (living in groups with a caste hierarchy) whose colony consists of around 2 million heat-sensitive individuals. In order to regulate the temperature of their nest, in African grasslands, termites build structures up to 6 meters high with multiple holes in the ceiling and in the basement. It is through this construction model that the Eastgate Center building was designed. The vents in the ceiling allow heat to escape, while those in the floor allow the passage of cold air. This results in an outside temperature of 38 ° C, and an inside temperature of around 24 ° C naturally.

On the left, the photography of Eastgate in Hara, Zimbabwe with the African termite mound system as inspiration on the right( Reference :  DOI: 10.2147/IJN.S83642)


Insects are not only used in architecture. We find them in robotics with the flight studies of insects and the design of micro-aerial vehicles (MAV). AVMs bring together robots or drones the size of insects or birds. Their flight is autonomous and adapts to the natural or artificial environment. Flying insects produce complex maneuvers combining sophisticated aerodynamic forces, precision, agility in their muscles, and structure in the venation of their wings.

Photograph of Harvard's RoboBee (robot bee) weighing 80 mg and measuring 5 mm in length. (Refrence : DOI : 10.1007/978-3-319-51532-8_4 ·)

In this area, several parameters are to be studied: the mechanics of the muscles, the relationship between the body and the wing, but also the neurobiological and sensory reactions of the insect. This area of ​​expertise brings together several disciplines such as biology, computer science, engineering and aeronautics. Current advances allow us to have MAV robots up to 15 cm and moving at a speed of 36 km / h.


Video illustrating the autonomous flight of AVMs.

However, one problem persists: the duration of the flight autonomy.

Finally, as a last example inspired by insects, we find that of the beetle (Onymacris unguicularis) of the desert of Namibia which collects water by collecting the droplets of the fog on its shell. These drops of water will then go to his head so that he can drink. MIT has replicated this structure with glass and plastic to collect the tiny amount of water found in arid environments. This device also allowed the construction of cooling and cleaning systems for toxic spills.

Photography of Onymacris unguicularis by Ph. Didier Descouens (left) and the water collection net developed by MIT (right), (Sources : https://www.science-et-vie.com/technos-et-futur/un-materiau-inspire-du-scarabee-du-cactus-et-de-la-plante-carnivore-qui-collecte-l-eau-atmospherique-6589/(page)/3 and https://xavcc.frama.io/biomimicry-rennes/)


Biomimicry is an important field of research aimed at transforming material and adapting it to our needs. Materials inspired by biomimicry don't just require an understanding of the subject. This requires modeling, graphic simulation and the fabrication of materials and systems for implementing this technology. Many states such as Japan, the United States, the countries of Europe, and big firms like Ford, HP, IMP and Nike are getting more and more involved. By 2025 industry analyzes forecast that the market size for biomimicry products and services will reach $ 1 trillion.

Reference :

1.Casas, J., Steinmann, T. & Krijnen, G. Why do insects have such a high density of flow-sensing hairs? Insights from the hydromechanics of biomimetic MEMS sensors. Journal of The Royal Society Interface 7, 1487–1495 (2010).

2.Holbrook, C. T. et al. Social insects inspire human design. Biology Letters 6, 431–433 (2010).

3.Liu, H., Ravi, S., Kolomenskiy, D. & Tanaka, H. Biomechanics and biomimetics in insect-inspired flight systems. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 371, 20150390 (2016).

4.(PDF) A biomimetic study of natural attachment mechanisms: imaging cellulose and chitin part 2. ResearchGate https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286539558_A_biomimetic_study_of_natural_attachment_mechanisms_imaging_cellulose_and_chitin_part_2 doi:10.1186/s40638-015-0032-9.

5.A Review of Biomimetic Air Vehicle Research: 1984-2014 - Thomas A. Ward, M. Rezadad, Christopher J. Fearday, Rubentheren Viyapuri, 2015. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1260/1756-8293.7.3.375.

6.Biomimetic materials research: what can we really learn from nature’s structural materials? | Journal of The Royal Society Interface. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsif.2007.0218.

7.Biomimetics: lessons from nature–an overview | Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsta.2009.0011.






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November 11, 2020

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