Thursday, March 19, 2009

How Would Nature Solve Your Design Problem?

Greetings from me, Diane, reporting from Wisconsin where robins have arrived, trees are budding, and we recklessly hope to avoid more snow. With thoughts turning to nature around here, I thought I’d talk about a very cool tool I just discovered.

It's called "Ask Nature" and is an online database sponsored by the folks at Autodesk, and operated by The Biomimicry Institute. Biomimicry is a new science (so new my spellchecker doesn't recognize the word) that looks to models in nature to inspire ingenious, sustainable solutions to human problems. As the site puts it, "It’s amazing what a 3.8-billion-year head start can do when it comes to problem solving."

To see how the site works, I posed a design problem. How might you design feet for a table subject to a lot of vibration, that would make it stay in one place regardless of the type of surface it stands upon? I mean, let's say this table might be placed on rough carpet, or it might be placed on smooth hardwood or tile.

So I searched on "rough or smooth" and the database turned up this story:

Feet of insects adjust to rough or smooth surfaces by engaging either claws or adhesive foot-pads.

"Researchers Bert Holldobler and Walter Federle have studied how insects can adhere to both rough and smooth surfaces. They discovered that when an insect walks, two claws at the front of each foot grip the surface and then begin to retract. If the surface is rough, the claws engage and the insect scrabbles along. If the surface is smooth, the hinged claws retract further and adhesive foot-pads protrude between the claws."

Immediately I'm picturing some sort of spring-loaded claws for the feet, which could retract, exposing non-skid rubber pads. Brilliant! Obviously an even more direct application, and one that I read has actually been used, is the design of feet for walking robots.

[I did notice that the Ask Nature site has a few "bugs," pardon the pun, but seeing as it was just launched last November, I'm sure they are still tweaking it.]

I have to agree, nature over time has figured out millions of clever, workable, and sustainable "machines" (i.e. creatures) that do nearly everything we humans would like our machines to do. It only makes sense to look to the natural world for designing tips.

I really have only one argument with nature's way: Why must winter be so long?


  1. Greetings! On behalf of the Biomimicry Guild, let me just say that I am ecstatic to see how you are using as a tool! It's been very exciting to see a community emerge around the site. As you noted, we are still in the process of making it more usable so we'd love to hear any suggestions that you have. You can also set up a profile and connect with other people who are practicing biomimicry. We need input from people like you, so please stay involved.
    To life!
    Taryn Mead
    Biologist at the Design Table
    Biomimicry Guild
    Helena, MT

  2. Thanks for the comment, Taryn! Your site is fascinating and we hope it will be a great boon to the engineering community.