Technology Inspired by Nature

What we learn from the natural world

For years, humans have looked to the natural world for inspiration for new technology. Sensors, cameras and advanced gene sequencing are just a few ways by which tech and nature have come together, leading to a better understanding of our own biology and the world that we live in. The effect of technology on nature hasn’t always been positive. Progression often comes at a high price to the environment. As much as technology has impacted the natural world (for better or for worse), nature has always been a source of inspiration for researchers and developers. In the last few years innovators have turned to the animal kingdom especially. As well as improving technology itself, this research is revealing new information about animals and ecosystems. But how have developers applied a knowledge of the natural world to technology, and how is it impacting different industries?

Bat bots and robotic eels. . .
Drone tech is an obvious example of how developers look to nature to create useful technology because, for a start, they can fly. One drone is capable enough, but when you program them to work in a swarm, they become even more powerful. The American military is currently testing a formidable fleet of 104 drones – the problem is, they’re clunky, expensive to repair and cause serious damage if they crash. They might be useful for military operations, but it isn’t going to work for surveillance or courier services.

A lightweight, bat-like drone called B2 could provide the answer.The drone mimics the flying mammals with flexible silicon wings and weighs just 93 grams. Another project, based at MIT, is working on an umbrella drone that moves like a jellyfish. Nature-inspired drones aren’t all airborne, though. At CES 2017, PowerVision debuted an underwater drone called PowerRay, designed for recreational fishing. The remotely operated machine detects fish up to 40m away, and can travel 30m below the surface. It’s equipped with a 4K UHD underwater camera which can be used in conjunction with a pair of PowerVision’s VR goggles, making the experience even more unique.

As well as awing hobbyists, underwater robots are now used to carry out repairs on oil and gas rigs. Norwegian company Eelume has developed a somewhat terrifying robotic eel that can perform simple repair tasks without putting human engineers at risk. A less obvious example of nature in tech is Swarm AI, a platform developed by Unanimous A.I. that applies the collective decision-making of honeybees to human questions.

How disruptive is nature-inspired technology?
Nature-inspired technology is unlocking more ways to apply innovation to construction, recreational activities, the military, maintenance and more. For the most part, the disruption caused is positive as it reduces risk to human lives. Bat-like drones, for example, would lower the number of destructive crashes, consequently accelerating the adoption rate of drone technology. The unsettling robot eel from Eelume carries out maintenance tasks in the place of humans, saving them from potentially dangerous repair work but also putting them out of a job. Despite this, nature-inspired tech is more about helping humans than replacing them. A lightweight bat drone, for instance, could travel to the local supermarket for an elderly owner and pick up a bag of groceries. The less imposing drones become, the easier it will be to market them to consumers.

Another gradual change brought about by biologically inspired machines is an increasingly blurred line between nature and technology. As well as enhancing various industries, delving into nature is useful for biologists and naturalists because it tells them more about how the natural world works. A huge potential benefactor is the healthcare industry, perhaps applying information about animal biology into remedies and cures for illnesses and injuries. From a business perspective, using nature as inspiration is all about creating a better B2B or B2C product. This isn’t exactly a new method of product development, but now that developers have the necessary technological ability and resources, businesses should act fast to implement their ideas.

Technology and the natural world are merging together in a number of different ways. Robots aren’t just becoming more like humans, they’re mirroring mammals and sea creatures too. Although the relationship between tech and nature hasn’t always been – and won’t always be – plain sailing, the interest of developers in natural biology is benefitting consumers, businesses and naturalists alike. Instead of forcing entirely new concepts, companies like PowerVision and Eelume have come up with innovative solutions that harness the result of years of evolution to create efficient, useful products. In the incredibly diverse natural world, innovators have a constant bank of ideas that are now becoming a reality.

Could you or your company use nature-inspired technology to enhance your business strategy? Which other industries could benefit from the combination of nature and tech? Does the bat bot (and other animal-like drones) have more potential as B2B or B2C products? Share your thoughts and opinions.