For almost four billion years the process of evolution has steadily invented and refined the mechanisms of the natural world, solving the problems of survival with elegantly efficient and perfectly optimised systems. As an R&D project it is unparalleled, and according to Prof Julian Vincent, director of Bath University’s Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies, the solutions developed by nature can be applied to a whole range of engineering design problems.
Vincent is one of the UK’s most vocal champions of biomimetics, an exciting discipline that borrows functions and mechanisms from nature to solve engineering problems. He is also one of the few researchers in the field with no formal background in engineering. Instead, he is a biologist, albeit one with a pragmatic outlook and love of engineering which ensures that his refreshing perspectives are taken seriously.
To Vincent, observing the natural world with a biologist’s eye, answers to engineering problems are everywhere: ‘You open your front door and look out on your garden and see a whole load of solutions looking for problems.’
To illustrate, he pointed to a current project in which a member of his team is developing a breathable material inspired by the action of the pine cone bract — which opens and closes according to varying humidity levels. Elsewhere in the garden Vincent has taken his inspiration from jumping insects and is working on the development of hopping robots that could be used to survey the surface of lowgravity planets using less energy than micro-air vehicles. He explained that networks of these robots could sit on the ground storing up energy in springs and then jump to great heights. His team is even investigating the possibility of the robots having wings that can be spread at the top of the jump, enabling them to glide.
But Vincent discovered his love of biomimetics almost by chance. In 1970 while working as a biologist at Reading University he was asked to help teach a course in advanced fracture mechanics and was immediately struck by the engineering lessons offered by the natural world. ‘If you understand the way something breaks you understand why it stays together. From my point of view in biology things rarely break, but if they do in engineering then why don’t they in biology?’
Despite the obvious advantages to a biological outlook very few biologists work in biomimetics. The reason for this, said Vincent, is that most biologists’ grounding in maths is statistical as opposed to the physics based maths of the engineer, and they tend to find engineering too simple. ‘Biology requires a kind of fuzzy logic: so many factors control something. If you do an experiment and you can explain 80–85 per cent of the variation then you’re doing very well, but an engineer would say that you’ve failed. To biologists that’s rather boring and unexciting.’
This isn’t a view of engineering that he shares, however. ‘For me there’s a romance in engineering. These days I’m an engineer, and I would find it very difficult to talk to biologists because they mostly do biochemistry. Engineers are far more down to earth and pragmatic and that’s good news. There are very few people doing what I call real biology, which is looking at an organism and working out how it manages to survive.’
The advantage of being a biologist, he said, is that they tend to have a strong sense of context. ‘Biologists always have to look at things in context because in the biological world everything is dependent on everything else. Engineering tends to look on things as individual components.’ The key, therefore, to getting engineers to understand biomimetic concepts is to adopt their mindset.
‘You have to put yourself into the mind of the engineer, work out what it is they want and explain biology in a sufficiently simple way that they can see it the way they would really like to have it. It’s actually very easy to wow engineers as biology is full of so many wonderful examples of technology that they would like to implement,’ he said.
With a grasp of both pursuits, Vincent therefore acts as a valuable interface between the two areas of science. ‘There’s a gap between biology and engineering and somebody has got to bridge that gap: that is the skill that I’ve learnt,’ he said.
One of the keys to bridging this gap could ultimately lie in the work that his team is doing with Triz, a theory of inventive problem solving developed in 1946 by Russian engineer Genrich Altshuller. Triz is an algorithmic approach to solving technical problems that draws on the study of patent information. Vincent is looking into using it as a way of deskilling the process by which ideas are transferred from biology to engineering. He said that ultimately he envisages design engineers using design software that incorporates biological information as stock tools of their trade.
Vincent is convinced that, just as Velcro, bottom right, was inspired by a Swiss engineer seeing dog’s fur covered in seed burrs, biology is full of technology that engineers would love to implement: from the pine cone bract, left, which opens and closes according to humidity levels, to the hop of the cricket, centre, to the burrowing of the ragworm, right.
But currently the big project for Vincent and his team is Biomimetic Structures for Locomotion in the Human Body (BIOLOC). This is a collaboration with European partners, including the University of Pisa in Italy, to develop an endoscope that he hopes will take the discontent out of colonic endoscopy.
As well as being deeply unpleasant, one of the problems with current colonic endoscopy techniques is that the force required to push an endoscope through the gut can also result in contusions to the gut wall, seriously confusing the process of imaging the gut lining. For Vincent the key to achieving this is the development of a device that requires ‘zero insertion force’, and the team is currently working on the design of an endoscope based on the burrowing ragworm, a ‘go-anywhere machine that burrows through liquid, mud and semi-solid mediums’.
There is, said Vincent, an increasing level of interest in biomimetics — the growing number of students interested in taking his course is evidence of that. Yet he also pointed to a prevailing lack of adventure within UK industry to embrace a different way of problem solving.
But while biomimetics is still largely in its commercial infancy, it’s easy to forget that the idea of mimicking nature has been around for a very long time. ‘Three thousand years ago the Chinese were particularly keen on finding out how spiders weave their webs and the production of a synthetic silk, and elsewhere flight pioneers were getting inspiration from birds,’ said Vincent.
Then, of course, there’s the story of Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral’s hairy dog getting covered in seed burrs which inspired the invention of Velcro. It is, Vincent joked, the original ‘shaggy dog’ story.
There are, however, fewer historical examples than people imagine. Vincent suggested that there have been instances where the biomimetic idea has been used to enhance advertising — biomimetics is not as simple as merely stealing ideas from nature, which is the impression the public can sometimes gain from the imagery used in adverts.
Ultimately, for Vincent the rise or fall of a successful biomimetic idea rests on how much engineers can believe the biology.
‘If it works in biology it can work within an engineering system, but engineers typically don’t think something’s possible unless they can model it on a computer. To me that seems trivial — if you see it occurring it must be model-able . The physics is the same in a biological system as it is in an engineering system.’