Biomimetics: Design in Nature Mimicked by Human Engineers

Photo credit: University of Alabama

Biomimetics is devoted to building technologies that mimic biochemical processes in living organisms. Human engineers have much to learn from the wonders of design in the biological world. Some recent advancements in this field also remind us of how biological designs are best explained as real, as opposed to only apparent, intelligent design.

Intelligent Designs in Nature Make Engineers Envious

A news item from the University of Alabama shows Dr. Amy Lang studiously gazing at a Monarch butterfly on the wing. She has reason to stay focused. She just got a $280,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the scales on butterfly wings to find ways to improve flight aerodynamics for MAVs (micro area vehicles).

Butterflies don't require the scales to fly, but Dr. Lang knows they help the insects fly better. "The butterfly scales are beautifully arranged on the wing, and how the scales are arranged is where the aerodynamic benefit comes in," she says. This "unique micro pattern ... reduces drag and likely increases thrust and lift during flapping and glided flight." When the scales are removed, the butterfly has to flap its wings 10 percent more to maintain the same flight. Read more.

Next-Generation Audio Processors Will Mimic the Human Brain

Have you tried using Siri, Google Voice Search or Dragon NaturallySpeaking in a noisy environment? Even with the latest noise cancelling technology, it's challenging for a smartphone to hear you because of the computing power required to analyze a sound spectrum including signal and noise. Yet the human brain does it with ease, as we all know from listening to a friend in a crowded restaurant or hearing a spouse call out above the din in a stadium.

To a computer, audio input is a forest of frequencies, constantly changing over time. Identifying the target signal is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Typically, the computer checks every needle in the haystack -- a wasteful way to search. A smartphone has to send audio signals to a powerful central server for processing.

Curious how the brain succeeds at this challenge, engineers at A*STAR Institute for Infocomm Research in Singapore set out to understand the brain's audio processing algorithm in order to imitate it. A news release titled "Following the Brain's Lead" describes how a team led by Jonathan Dennis figured out a brain-mimicking approach.

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Here we see a remarkable capability in the brain involving many different component parts. The outer ear, middle ear, and cochlea, with all their complex parts, provide audio input to the auditory nerve. That nerve bundle feeds into "feature-sensitive" neurons able to dissect the spectrum of sound into its components. Several layers of processing neurons further analyze the features. Then, the "decision-making" neurons decide the target signal to focus on. All this works in "total synergy" with the visual system.

Could such a complex, interrelated computational mechanism arise by mutations and unguided selection? If so, the engineers might as well toss components onto a vibrating table and wait for something interesting to emerge. No; they studied "biological acoustic systems" because they know a well-designed system when they hear one. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. More.

Honeybee Teaches Engineers How to Land a Robot

It's easy to take for granted the sight of a bee landing on a picnic table, wall or ceiling. For many of us, our first thought is to shoo it away. When you think about what's involved from an engineering standpoint, though, it's really quite remarkable. Landing on a window requires the insect to see the window, decelerate, turn its whole body, and grip the smooth surface. Try writing software to make a radio-controlled helicopter or drone do that. The scientific and mathematical knowledge required is daunting, but a fly or bee does it with ease.

Figuring that there must be a simple rule in the process somewhere, Emily Baird of Lund University and three German and Australian colleagues watched bees land. The research was reported by the University of Queensland, and on The Conversation. Here was the question on their minds, from their paper in PNAS:

Landing is a challenging aspect of flight because, to land safely, speed must be decreased to a value close to zero at touchdown. The mechanisms by which animals achieve this remain unclear. When landing on horizontal surfaces, honey bees control their speed by holding constant the rate of front-to-back image motion (optic flow) generated by the surface as they reduce altitude. As inclination increases, however, this simple pattern of optic flow becomes increasingly complex. More.

"Adaptation" in Hearing: "We Have No Idea How It Works"

ENV reported last week on the slow advance that researchers are making toward understanding the fantastically sophisticated "biological acoustic system" through which we hear what's going on in the world. Not only hear, but -- crucially -- edit out what's of interest to us from the wall of sound that washes over us in a noisy environment, focusing in on it to the exclusion of everything else:

Through biomimetics, these researchers are advancing science, both by contributing to the understanding of the brain's operation, and by improving audio processing technology. It's one more example of how science progresses through design-based approaches.

No less crucial to hearing is the ability not only to edit what comes in but also to adapt to different levels of volume, instantaneously, to avoid injury while sacrificing nothing by way of sensitivity. Thus when the jackhammer right outside my window at Discovery Institute falls momentarily silent, I'm immediately able to hear very soft sounds like a colleague's footfall as he turns the corner in the carpeted hall on the way to come visit me. More.

In this last story, one of the lead scientists reports: "This study shows we have no idea how it works." In this case, biologists and engineers have much more to learn before human intelligent design (engineering) could mimic the intelligent design exhibited in certain aspects of "hearing." The other three stories above focus on recent advances in mimicking design in nature. Flight and hearing capabilities in nature (and increasinly in human technology) will never cease to amaze us.

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