Learning from the natural world

Ullas Ponnadi

Let us start this article with an interesting question. Have we, humans, really invented anything?

We have a wide range of fascinating inventions that have made our life simpler, helped us cure and correct disorders and diseases, reduced travel and communication distances, and helped delegate work to machines.

Were these really inventions? Or were they merely a rediscovery of what nature has been working on, fine-tuning, evolving, making them perfect, making them the most energy efficient, all the while ensuring that they are the most sustainable form of development, over the past millions of years?

Let us park this question for a while, and understand what biomimicry is all about.

BioMimicry Biomimetics or biomimicry is a branch of science that combines biology and technology, and all of our current knowledge of science to understand what nature has perfected over millions of years, and then adapt that via models and systems to help solve complex problems faced by humans.

The beauty of this branch of science is that all of the existing specialisations related to higher education – whether it is the pure sciences, fields of engineering as in mechanical, civil, electrical, electronics, etc., or the field of medicine – can learn from nature and adapt, create, and then find solutions to a variety of difficult problems.

Why biomimicry now?
In about 2.5 million years, which is a tiny timeline in the earth’s existence, we humans have become the single largest species on this planet with the current population standing at seven billion and counting.

We are now bursting at the seams. There are too many of us, and our habits are unsustainable. We must find an answer to the question: “How can we live on this planet without destroying it?”

Our existence and methods to support our survival and growth is also wiping out everything, starting from small organisms to entire ecosystems. A survey by the National Biological Service found that one-half of all native ecosystems in the United States are degraded to the point of endangerment.

That makes biomimicry more than just a new way of viewing and valuing nature. It’s also a race to the rescue.

What are some of the complex challenges already solved via biomimicry?
Let us look at a few interesting examples over the past few decades, where scientists have turned to Nature to observe, understand, learn and then adapt and invent. We will cover a few broad sectors as we do so.

Learning from humpback whales how to create efficient wind power

Humpback whales have irregular looking bumps called tubercles on their flippers. These allow for eight per cent improvement in lift, 32 per cent improvement in drag, and 40 per cent increase in angle of attack. A company called WhalePower is applying the lessons learned from the humpback whales to the design of wind turbines to increase their efficiency. This natural technology also has enormous potential to improve the safety and performance of airplanes, fans, and more.

The author is the Director and CTO of CREATNLRN, a venture focussing on creating an adaptive and interactive learning platform for high school students. He can be reached at uponnadi@gmail.com.

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