The Year in Biomimicry: How Beetles, Mantis Shrimp & More Inspired Innovation

4. Namib Desert Beetle. Oh my gosh, a repeat winner! This animal is able to wring moisture out of the night air of the desert in order to survive. It does so by facing into the prevailing sea breeze and letting its cooler body condense small droplets of water that run down channels to its waiting mouth. The droplet formation is ensured by a clever series of hydrophilic bumps surrounded by hydrophobic parts of its shell.

The creature has inspired yet another invention created to solve our increasing scarcity of potable water. James Dyson award-winner Edward Linacre of Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, has designed the Airdrop water harvester as a simple integrated system to provide water to crops in arid regions. It comprises a collector, condenser, storage tank and underground drip irrigation distribution network, and is easily installed and maintained by the farmer.

Like its biological mentor the Airdrop makes use of a difference in surface temperature to force the condensation of water vapor, but it uses the soil underground to do it. The subterranean coiled copper pipe forces the dew point in air collected via turbine and the water drops below into a tank from whence it is pumped to the crops. An LCD screen displays tank water levels, pressure strength, solar-battery life, and system health. Linacre estimates that 11.5 milliliters of water can be extracted from every cubic meter of air.

The innovation here is most decidedly in the thoughtful application of a physical principle that creatures take advantage of, namely the temperature activated phase change of water. And why shouldn't we?

5. Caterpillar. Many of these invertebrates employ a hoop-forming locomotion tactic in order to escape predation and biologists and mechanical engineers at Tufts University studied this behavior in designing GoQBot. Huai-Ti Lin, who designed the GoQBot, claims that this escape motion is one of the fastest self-propelled wheeling behaviors in nature, and it piqued his interest in its study.

The result was a 4-inch long robot made of silicone rubber, with actuators that are made of embedded shape-memory alloy coils. In tests at the lab the robot achieved a push-off time of less than 250 milliseconds and spun with an angular velocity of 300 rpm. The intriguing aspect of this innovation is that it suggests multiple forms of locomotion from the same device. Previous robots inspired by snakes have been highly articulated and flexible, but notoriously slow. This device suggests the possibility of creating an unmanned vehicle that can alternately move in tight spaces, span gaps and move with speed.

Here is a video of the GoQBot posted by the Institute of Physics. video:


Nature does not employ too many wheels (ATP synthase, and the rotary base of certain bacteria flagella come to mind), so this innovation is especially novel in its biological approach. This fresh look has enabled multiple functions not previously achieved, and represents another step in the path toward more and more capable "softbots."

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