Mother Nature's Design Workshop

How do scientists find the inspiration for the latest in surveillance and defense technologies? Often by looking long and hard at insects and other small creatures

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Scientists looking to develop new methods of defense and surveillance often study the characteristics of houseflies, bees, dragonflies, and other small creatures.

It's a field known as biomimetics or biomimicry, though not everyone approves of those terms. Promode Bandyopadhyay of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I., says his work is not an imitation of biology, but biologically inspired. "We are learning from nature's design," he says.


  A senior research scientist at the center, Bandyopadhyay has worked with the Office of Naval Research to develop a Bio-Inspired Autonomous Undersea Vehicle, or BUAV, which draws on the principles behind fly wings and fish fins in its propulsion and maneuvering.

The tried-and-true designs of many insects are the product of millions of years of evolution. Even so, they are not perfect models. Natural selection isn't just a matter of physiological perfection, but how an organism's traits suit it for a particular environment, scientists say. For this reason, Bandyopadhyay stresses it is important not to just copy nature's work, but to take the best parts of it and apply it elsewhere. "I am against mimicry," he says. "I am against making a mechanical zoo. There is no science in that. It is imperative to understand the science first."

It's in that vein that the Office of Naval Research has funded the development of biomimetic robots created by Northeastern University's Joseph Ayers. The robots may be implemented by the military to disable mines in shallow waters.


  A team of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, led by Luke Lee, has created an artificial compound eye, inspired by the eyes of dragonflies or houseflies. The goal of the research was not to create an insect-part replica, but rather, to create a tiny device capable of 360-degree surveillance. The artificial eye may one day even be used for internal medical procedures.

Whatever the terminology, Mother Nature's 4 billion years of research are giving scientists plenty to draw on as they come up with the latest in technological innovation.Click here to see the slide show.

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