Originally created 06/05/06

Scientists find inspiration in nature



ATLANTA - One of the greatest challenges for robotics engineers is building a machine that actually walks like one of us. Capturing the organized fall that allows humans to get around rather gracefully has, in most cases, come off as, well, rather robotic.

Scientists in the rapidly maturing field of biologically-inspired design believe in turning to organic processes and embracing biological principles to solve such scientific stumpers. They argue that technology can learn much from the world's most rigorous process: evolution.

"If you think of organisms as products, all the bad ones have been recalled. Those that have survived evolved over millions of years," said Marc Weissburg, a biology professor and co-director of Georgia Tech's Center for Biologically Inspired Design.

Two centers dedicated to the field have opened up within the past year, one at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and another at the University of California, Berkeley. And last month, dozens of researchers in the field gathered in Atlanta to share their experiments.

A range of projects probing rat whiskers, fish jaws and worm brains made up a Noah's Ark-size display of the innovations the field could yield.

"It really captures the imagination to show how much better organisms are at doing things," Dr. Weissburg said. "The natural world doesn't waste energy, accumulate a large amount of toxins or produce more materials than it uses."

His pet project shines a blinding green laser into a pool of water to track how a blue crab still manages to scamper down a piece of shrimp in 15 seconds without its sight.

German scientist Rolf Mller, who teaches at China's Shandong University, says his investigation of bat ears could improve sonar technology. Robert Full, a Berkeley researcher, is trying to learn the principles that keep six-legged insects, eight-legged crabs and four-legged dogs upright.

The field has enjoyed a few recent popular successes, including cleaning products and paints that try to capture the makeup of lotus plants, which prevent water from sticking to their leaves' surfaces, repelling dirt and contaminants.

Velcro was inspired by burrs that stuck to a dog's fur after a walk through brush, and the Wright brothers modeled the first working airplane after the structure of a bird's wings.