One day in 1941, Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral (above) went for a walk in the woods.
It was just like any other day, but this time, he took a closer look at the burrs that clung so intently to his pant legs and his dog’s fur. Eight years and a great deal of research later, de Mestral had invented Velcro, the pairing of thousands of tiny loops and hooks that today holds together countless jackets, shoes, and bags. This is one of the simplest and most pervasive forms of biomimicry in the modern world. Biomimicry involves imitating systems or mechanisms present in nature as a solution to some human problem. In the case of Velcro, we gained a fastener less permanent than glue, less complex than zippers, and quicker than knots.
Velcro was by no means the first time humans have taken a cue from nature to improve their lives and for good reason. Early humans derived survival tools and hunting techniques from animals that had millions of years to evolve and optimize to their environments. After humans moved beyond simply sustaining life, scholars again found inspiration in the natural world. The Wright brothers used the scientific method to uncover the underlying principles of how birds’ wings provide lift, thus enabling the first human flight over Kitty Hawk.
Boxfish and the Bionic
Lotus plant leaves
In fact, nature has lent its innovation to much more than most people know. The tropical boxfish has evolved into a shape that provides it very low resistance to moving through the water. Engineers at Mercedes used the boxfish’s shape to create a concept sedan, the Bionic (see above), which sported drag lower than any production car in history. The Kingfisher hunts fish by dive-bombing (quite literally!) through the air and into water with minimal splashing, thanks to the shape of its beak. Japanese engineers used a design inspired by the Kingfisher’s beak to reduce the noise created by Shinkansen bullet trains in rural areas of the country. The structure of lotus plant leaves (above) allows for the quick, natural removal of water and dirt from their surfaces and helps them keep clean. Scientists have created a self-cleaning paint that dries with a similar structure to aid in dirt removal without human intervention.
The next time you’re taking in the great outdoors, look around. What does nature do well that humans are already copying? What does nature do well that humans could be better at? The natural world has set an idyllic example for us and we should copy it wherever we can— it’s been around a lot longer than any of us have.
Check out these and more examples of biomimicry by following this link.
By Oliver K., Staff Writer.
Edited by Peggy K.