Could nature help us build more efficient transportation?

Explore • Pulse #4 • 4 min
By Hannah Meltzger

A train inspired by a kingfisher’s bill? An inter-vehicle communication system which can imitate shoals of fish? What if nature holds the secret to smarter cities using more efficient and sustainable mobility? Scientists, engineers and architects working in the field of biomimicry — literally ‘imitation of the living’ — believe nature can be emulated and harnessed to enhance man-made materials, structures and systems.

Biomimicry has long accompanied the development of complex technologies. From Leonardo da Vinci, whose study of birds directly influenced his sketches of ‘flying machines’, to industrial designers who have seized the opportunity to use nature’s mechanisms to create both eye-pleasing and practical prototypes designed for urban use. “Life has been evolving for 3.8 billion years, and in that time, it has found what works and what lasts,’’ said Megan Schuknecht, Director of Design Challenges at the Biomimicry Institute in Montana in the United States. “By looking to all that experience that nature has accumulated, we can learn from its blueprints and apply the way that it does things to the way that humans create things, move things and live their lives.”
Biomimicry could prove particularly useful, as changes like population growth, urbanisation and the transition to greener energies present both challenges and opportunities in sectors like mobility.

Natural ecosystems are superlatively efficient and nature-inspired solutions have already proven fruitful. One of the most emblematic examples is Japan’s Shinkansen Bullet Train and its distinctive long nose. Engineer Eiji Nakatsu, a keen birdwatcher, employed observations of the splash-free water entry of kingfishers to develop the train’s distinctive aerodynamic front, creating decreased noise pollution and increased speed and energy efficiency.

In the automotive sector Michelin has imagined an airless tyre, using a 3D printing system which smartly mimics a bees’ honeycomb structure. What’s more, this tyre optimises efficiency by adapting to new environments as soon as the driver informs the vehicle’s system of his or her next destination.

Elsewhere students from California State University, as part of the Biomimicry Student Design Challenge, worked on integrating biomimicry into sustainable solutions for transport. They came up with a creative idea which includes an imitation of cat’s whiskers made with flexible fluorescent bands and stripes to attach to bicycles to increase visibility and safety for both bike riders and car drivers. Just like cats use their whiskers to get about, analyse environment and sense potential dangers, the so-called VibraSee, which refers to the stiff vibration transmitting hair located on the muzzle of most mammals is a mountable bike accessory allowing cyclists to define lane boundaries, signal turns, and discourage cars from overtaking too close.

Biomimicry is a fast-growing discipline and holds real potential for future innovation too. Pioneers in this field are already experimenting with replicating the way shoals of fish communicate with one another to move through the water efficiently and avoid collision. Applied to intelligent vehicles with onboard detection and communication systems, these principles could underpin tomorrow’s synchronised driving behaviour via inter-vehicle communication, allowing for safer, cleaner and less congested travel. “There is a lot of potential there,” says Megan Schuknecht. “If we can emulate this sort of fine-tuned signal and response that’s happening in nature, generally it’s going to mean more efficiency for our systems.”

Beyond mobility, biomimicry is helping reinvent energy production and conversation. Scientists at West Chester University in the US have experimented with transposing the scalloped edge of the fin of a humpback whale, called a ‘tubercle’, onto wind turbine technology to increase efficiency and reduce drag. Similarly, scientists at Australia’s RMIT University have begun work which harnesses the photosynthesis system of a certain kind of fern to develop a new type of electrode that could boost the storage capacity of solar energy technology by up to 3,000%. Mobility solutions which harness biomimicry-led energy innovations can’t be far behind. “I think biomimicry really gives young people a sense of hope,” concludes Megan Schuknecht. “Nature has already presented us with this great model and the blueprint is there.”

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