Watching the birds

There’s nothing Dave Wilson likes more than spending his lunch hour in a local park in Soho eating a sandwich whilst watching the antics of the local birds.

There’s nothing I like more than spending my lunch hour in the local park in Soho eating a sandwich whilst watching the antics of the local birds.

Some people think that they’re just a bloody nuisance, but those folks are obviously not engineers. Don’t they realize that birds are the end result of a multi-million year optimisation experiment that has produced the world’s most efficient flying machines. And we could learn a lot from them.

Researchers at NASA’s <a href=’’>Langley Research Center</a> in the US would agree with me. They’re so interested in what we could discover from bird watching that they’re involved in a five-year mission to boldly borrow some of Mother Nature’s concepts and develop a wing based on the same principles!

As engaging as it sounds, though, the notion of pinching ideas from nature and using them someplace else isn’t new. After all, Michael Kelly invented Barbed Wire (or the Devil’s rope as it was known by Native Americans) as far back as 1868 after he was inspired by the thorny hedges used to pen in cattle!

But the technique does have a distinctive new name – biomimetics. And a lot is happening on the biomimetics front these days, that’s for sure.

Unlike the fellas at NASA, here in the UK the chaps at the University of Reading’s <a href=’’> Centre for Biomimetics</a> are more content to check out birds that don’t fly. They’re carrying out studies on the insulation layers of penguins to see if it’s possible to develop a fabric that could be used to make ‘responsive clothing’ with properties based on the state of activity of the wearer. They see lots of uses for such a fabric in the development of clothing for the military that can be worn in numerous climates. Cool stuff, indeed!

But biomimetics isn’t just for the birds. Oh, no. A host of other researchers are peering into the oceans to see what we might learn from what’s swimming around down there.

Designers over at <a href=’’> Draper Laboratories</a> were so fond of tuna that they built their own and gave it a fancy name. Their ‘Vorticity Controlled Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (VCUUV) is an 8ft, 300lb robotic, yellow-fin tuna that mimics both the form and kinematics of the Neothunnus macropterus itself! They hope that the whopping great denizen of the deep could be deployed recovering unexploded mines!

Birds, hedges and fish. Anything that lives has the potential to offer something to a biomimetic researcher. Even rather revolting things like tapeworms! Indeed, it was the locomotive system of intestinal parasites that inspired the chaps in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the <a href=’’ >University of Cagliari</a> to start developing an autonomous endoscope that’s capable of exploring the entire gastrointestinal tract. Lucky patients who get to trial the device will undoubtedly be happy not to be sent around the bend when the new endoscopic device does the same.

And on that note, I see that it’s lunchtime again. So I’m going out into Soho to grab a sarnie and perform some more biomimetic research by examining more of the exotic wildlife that is so prevalent in these parts. But because we have no oceans or prairies in central London, and because I’ve never been one to contemplate my navel, I think I may stick to watching the birds.

Dear Sir:

I work for a California-based biomimetics organization. Over the past year, we have been asking many engineers across the various engineering subdisciplines (electrical, software, acoustics, optical, etc.) what ‘species-based metafields’ they would like to see populated in a biomimetics database.

Many have responded in considerable detail, enabling us to begin to define a unique bio-knowledgebase, structured by specific engineering ‘metafields’. I’m also pleased to note that one of America’s leading design firms is now offering their services in shaping this ‘knowledgebase’ so that it also meets the unique needs of product designers.

Our present need, however, is to reach a wider engineering base, ensuring that our growing knowledgebase is as comprehensive and useful to engineers as possible.

I would be pleased to hear from any engineers in the broader engineering community who may also be able to contribute to our efforts.

<a href=’’>John Pietrzyk</a>.<br>Managing Principal<br>Biomimetic Connections<br>Anaheim, CA 94587-5523<br>United States of America<br>