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Engineers Flatter Nature by Imitation

Nature's designs are so good, inventors and engineers are rushing to imitate them. Does that sound like these designs are products of tinkering by a blind watchmaker? Check out these recent examples of biomimetics, the art and science of imitating nature's designs.


In news from MIT ("Dig this: RoboClam"), Professor Anette Hosoi and her grad student Amos Winter are proud of their digging tool, "Inspired by the amazing ability of the small clam to dig and wedge itself far deeper and more securely than would be thought" (emphasis added). The humble razor clam should be too weak to dig so well, but these engineers call it the "Ferrari of underwater diggers" --

By filming the movement of the beads, Winter made a startling discovery. The clam's quick up-and-down, opening-and-closing movements turn the waterlogged "sand" around it into a liquid-like quicksand. Experiments showed that "moving through a fluidized substrate [the quicksand] rather than a packed granular medium [ordinary sand] drastically reduces the drag force on the clam's body, bringing it to a point within the animal's strength capabilities," Winter reported.

A video clip shows their robot device doing what clams have done all along. This trick might allow for automated diggers to anchor themselves in the seabed. Nor is that the only design under study at MIT. "For several years, Hosoi's research has focused on novel propulsion mechanisms inspired by nature."

Almost as Good as Fish

When an intelligently designed thing can turn "almost as rapidly" as a natural thing, what does that imply about the natural counterpart? In this case, the fish beats the robot, according to more news from MIT -- but it's reason enough to celebrate the achievements of the human mind in copying nature.

The fish can perform 20 or 30 escape maneuvers, depending on their velocity and angle, before it exhausts its carbon dioxide canister. But the comparatively simple maneuver of swimming back and forth across a tank drains the canister quickly. "The fish was designed to explore performance capabilities, not long-term operation," Marchese says.

Soft robots are trending up because they're safer around humans, they cause less damage to robot and environment, and their flexibility allows an infinite range of conformations. A look inside the device in an embedded video (above) shows a lot of wiring and sophisticated design. How much more for the real fish? "Next steps for future research are taking that system and building something that's compromised on performance a little bit but increases longevity." Needless to say, fish do both without compromise.

Better Living Through Spider Chemistry

The American Chemical Society is getting closer to a long-sought goal: creating synthetic spider silk. Due to its combination of flexibility and strength, spider silk is a poster child of biomimetics: ideal for its design properties, but devilishly hard to imitate.

Alex Scott, a senior editor at C&EN, notes that spider silk's impressive strength has been studied for years, and scientists have been trying to make a synthetic version of the super-strong protein in the lab. For other simpler proteins, scientists have been able to insert relevant genes into bacterial DNA, essentially turning the microorganisms into protein factories. But spider silk has not been so easy to churn out. In fact, the challenge has caused big name companies including DuPont and BASF to bow out after several years of investment.

The press release notes that some small companies are succeeding -- not by creating the master material from scratch -- but by putting the genes for making it into goats, bacteria and silkworms.

The College of William & Mary is going a more direct route: milking live spiders for their silk (and dangerous brown recluse spiders at that). It's nice to see such widely unloved animals revealed as being useful for something. The silk is flat and very strong, five times stronger than Kevlar, and biodegradable. "They say application of such materials as a coating for implant materials is virtually a no-brainer," the article says. "Synthetic silks have great potential to replace a variety of structural materials including plastics and even metals, such as steel."

Darwinian evolutionists say that nature is full of bad designs. Natural selection is a "tinkerer," they explain, that cobbles together whatever parts are available, without purpose or goal. If that were true, we would expect natural designs to be the minimal required for survival.

Instead, we see one described as a "Ferrari," and others described as amazing, impressive, startling, novel, and (most of all) designed. We see big companies bowing out of the attempt to imitate them. And we see "great potential" for human inventions built on the same design principles.