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Animals inspire scientists to solve problems that humans face


There are plenty of reasons to get out into nature and look around. It makes us feel calmer and happier. It can help us care more about the plants and animals around us. It shows us how our world works.

For some scientists, looking at the natural world gives them ideas that can improve our environment, our health, the way we grow food, and much more. They study bees to find out how tiny robots can “talk” to each other while monitoring our skies. They look at sticky gecko feet to figure out how to make tape to replace sutures for wounds. The way a pitcher plant catches insects shows how they can trap pests in a farm field.

“There are so many fun and unique and interesting ways” animals have evolved “to solve problems, and some of these solutions are solutions that humans have never thought of,” said Lisa Manning, the director of the BioInspired Institute at Syracuse. University in New York. . It is one of many research organizations around the world where scientists find inspiration for inventions from other living things.

The BioInspired Institute, which launched in 2019, and similar institutes may be new, but Manning says bioinspired has been around for a long time. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci invented flying machines based on bat and bird wings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Alessandro Volta “looked at the behavior of the electric eel” to invent the battery, Manning says.

Scientists at the BioInspired Institute study fruit flies understand how their brains process information and honeybees to help prevent bleeding in patients. Zhenyu Gan is a mechanical and aerospace engineer in Syracuse. He mainly makes robots, robots with two or four legs, as opposed to robots with wheels or tracks. “I’ve been playing with these kinds of toys since I was a kid and obsessed with Transformers,” he says.

Legged robots would be useless if they couldn’t stand or walk. To figure out how they’re supposed to work, Gan looks at animals like horses and small hopping rodents called jerboas. “The first thing we need to understand is the fundamental differences” between the movements of these animals, says Gan.

Human-inspired robots tend to be a bit clumsy, in part because humans have “bulky” legs compared to some other animals, Gan says. But we also have to constantly control our legs in order not to fall over. That takes a lot of energy. A horse has four legs to give them more stability. The girth of their legs is also closer to their torso, making them faster and more efficient.

Robots like the one Gan is developing have many uses. They can be used to explore Mars and other parts of space. Hospitals started using dog-like robots to talk to patients during the pandemic. Police departments use legged robots to search burned areas and collapsed buildings for survivors.

There are many solutions to problems that people have come up with without looking at nature. “They work and they’re simpler,” says Manning of the BioInspired Institute. “But they’re not as robust” as bio-inspired inventions, “and they don’t handle environmental changes as well as animal solutions.”

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