By observing nature, scientists find answers for many human problems and inventions…
A young Isaac Newton is believed to have understood the nature of gravity after an apple fell from a tree and hit him on the head, and Florence Nightingale reduced the spread of infection by discovering the power of fresh air and light in the healing process. And so it begins…
The plant and animal world contains a vault of knowledge. Billions of species have survived and adapted to a continuously changing planet and it seems that the more scientists study nature and animal behaviour, the less superior humans appear.
Take for example:
• The spider web – a classic example of biological inspiration where engineers were able to imitate it to design lightweight fibres of high tensile strength.
• A toxic from snake venom can be used as an anti-coagulant to prevent clotting in human blood.
• Swiss engineer George de Mestral was intrigued by how the seeds of burdock clung to his clothes and thereafter developed Velcro.
• Professor Eric Warrant at Lund Universityin Sweden teamed with mathematicians and Toyota to study how dung beetles, bees and moths fly at night. The result – a camera system capable of capturing the night in true colour, the way insects do.
• Scientists at the University of Arizona have studied how the octopus uses networks of pigment cells to match the colour of their surroundings, helping the octopus to avoid predators. They believe that the lessons learnt from nature could be used to combat national security threats.
Closer to home, Professor Mandyam Srinivasan at the Queensland Brain Institute is turning to nature to develop air safety strategies.
In partnership with Boeing Australia Limited and in collaboration with The University of Newcastle, the project is examining how birds sense and avoid collisions.
The results will then assist in designing innovative strategies to detect and avoid midair collisions between aircraft.
“Birds flying in a flock rarely collide with each other – this has us wondering whether birds actively avoid collisions, and if so, how they might do so,” says Professor Srinivasan.
The study will take three years to complete and Professor Srinivasan says the first stage of the study will involve filming the budgerigars in a flight tunnel equipped with high-speed video cameras.
“The results will reveal first how these birds detect imminent collisions and secondly what strategies they use to avoid impending collisions,” he says.
“This biological inspiration will then be used to design algorithms and vision systems that will be incorporated into quadrotor aircraft to endow us with the ability to detect and avoid potential mid-air collisions.”
Professor Srinivasan believes that by finding biologically-inspired solutions we can learn a lot about not only collision avoidance in aircraft but also broader lessons about individual
“Nature has always managed to find excellent solutions to many seemingly insurmountable problems, through millions of years of evolution.”
Over the past twenty years Professor Srinivasan has also studied honeybees – how they use their vision to control their flight speed and altitude, avoid collisions with objects, fly safely through narrow passages, estimate distance flown and orchestrate smooth landings.
He firmly believes that there are no disadvantages, only benefits, to studying how other species survive and adapt to the changing environment.
“However, one does have to be cautious in mimicking biology, because the solution that an animal uses to deal with a particular challenge can be the result of a compromise between several challenges, not all which may be relevant to our particular engineering problem.”
It is yet another good argument for protecting and preserving the world in which we live.