Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Last Updated 11 October 2010, 13:34 IST

The fastest train in the world, the Shinkansen bullet train was also a noisy one. When residents en route complained about its ear splitting noise every time it emerged out of a tunnel, something had to be done. The train’s chief engineer Nakatsu turned to the kingfisher bird for a solution. Kingfishers dive from air to water with very little splash, what if the train’s front could be modelled like the bird’s beak? Nakatsu did just that and the result? A quieter and faster train which is also more energy-efficient.

Massive tsunami waves are very tiny when they start off in the deep oceans. If only they could be detected using pressure sensors and that data transmitted through water to the surface and then on to satellite for distribution to early warning centres, much death and destruction can be prevented. But then, underwater signal transmission is a tricky business. Evologics, a German company, drew inspiration from the highly developed underwater signaling system of the dolphins which uses a unique form of frequency modulation. They then developed an underwater modem that is currently being used throughout the Indian Ocean region for early warnings of tsunami.

Nature as a model and mentor
These are just two examples of biomimicry in action. But what is biomimicry? It is the science and art of emulating nature’s best biological ideas to solve human problems. One of the earliest and best known examples of biomimicry is the study of birds in the design of airplanes. In biomimicry, nature is looked at as a model, measure and mentor. Proponents of biomimicry believe that nature has already solved many of the problems humans are currently grappling with, such as harnessing energy (leaf), non-toxic colours (peacock) and sustainable agriculture (prairies) and therefore we would do well to learn from nature’s long research and development process.

Biomimicry Institute, a Montana, USA-based organisation plans to inspire, educate and connect biomimics throughout the world. It offers formal and informal training programmes at various levels. It has also created an open source project called ‘AskNature’ where biologists and designers, engineers and architects interact to find sustainable solutions. Biomimicry has applications in policy making too. By understanding nature’s way of functioning, human beings can better their strategies for living too. This strategy would then call for long-term thinking, greater co-operation and tighter feedback loops.

Solving design challenges
Many businesses are turning to biomimicry now to solve their design challenges. Office systems are now using air conditioning modelled after the self-cooling tunnels of termites. Termites build an elaborate system of tunnels and vents which aids air circulation so effectively that the temperature inside the nests is almost a constant even in the desert. The lotus leaf has microscopically rough surfaces that prevent water from sticking to it. The beaded water rolls off with dust particles that fall on the leaf. Researchers have succeeded in achieving cleaning effects with much lesser harmful chemicals by using the “lotus effect” in glass, textiles and even paints. There are over a thousand such examples in the AskNature section.

Janine Benyus, a pioneer in the field of biomimicry and founder of the Biomimicry Institute feels that in order to endure as a species on this planet, we need to function like the natural world.

Human beings share their home with 10-30 million other species, species that are surviving because of nature’s genius to improvise and invent. Over millions of years nature has found out what works and therefore emulating what nature does is definitely a very important way for a sustainable future.

(Published 11 October 2010, 13:34 IST)

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