How nature inspires design

The kingfisher was the inspiration behind the design of the bullet train's nose (Getty)
The kingfisher was the inspiration behind the design of the bullet train's nose (Getty)

If an innovator needs inspiration, they don't have to go far to find it -- oftentimes the answer is right outside their window.

Nature provides the ultimate proving ground for a number of inventions which can be used to benefit mankind -- a process called biomimicry.

A new study from New Zealand today documented how seaweed grown in the South Pacific could have medical applications in making super glue which works in wet conditions.

But what other inventions or processes has nature helped inspire?

How nature inspires design

In 1941, Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral went for a walk in the woods with is dog, both of whom became covered in burrs.

Following eight years of research, he managed to come up with a synthetic version with two strips of fabric -- one with thousands of tiny hooks, the other with tiny loops. The name came from the words 'velvet' and 'crochet' and was patented in 1955.


How nature inspires design

Japan's Shinkansen is one of the fastest around, but you probably wouldn't guess the design was partly based on the humble kingfisher.

The 500-series bullet trains could travel up to 300km/hr but the noise they made, especially coming out of tunnels, was more than the country's noise-pollution limits.

Eiji Nakatsu, an engineer and keen birdwatcher, noticed how the bird's beak allows the water to flow past it rather than being pushed in front of it while diving in for prey.

The beak is streamlined and increases in diameter from the top to the head allowing it to move from the air, which has low resistance, to the water, which has high resistance.

The train faced the same problem, and prompted Mr Nakatsu to design the current nose of the train now used by millions.

How nature inspires design

Any source of water is potentially lifesaving resource in the desert.

By copying the Namibian Desert Beetle, several fog-catching inventions have been made to make the most of the minimal water available in the arid environment.

The insects raise their backs in the air as the fog rolls in, catching water droplets on the bumps in its shell. The water drops run down chutes towards the insect's mouth.

There have been a number of commercial products made using the same technique and are relatively cheap to reproduce.

These include a Korean-designed stainless steel dome which mimics the beetle's body and collects enough dew drops to fill a drinking glass.


How nature inspires design

When China hosted the 2008 Olympics, it's National Aquatic Centre -- nicknamed the Watercube -- caused a bit of a stir.

Designed to resemble bubbles found in water, the building also uses materials which allow it to trap heat and is easily cleanable.

Each bubble is a pillow of rugged plastic which traps hot air from the sun which is circulated to heat the pools.

The plastic is also resistant to sun damage and washes clean in the rain. It technically can't be considered an example of biomimicry because it copies a physical, rather than biological, phenomenon.


How nature inspires design

Geckos and other lizards are well known for their ability to climb walls and stick to all kinds of surfaces.

Millions of microscopic hairs on the bottom of their toes allow them to scale almost anything they can find.

While the stickability of each hair is small, the overall effect is powerful.

Scientists from the University of Massachussets has developed a product called Geckskin which copies the same idea.

An index card-sized strip of the product can hold almost 320kg on a smooth surface like glass. It can easily be released and leaves no residue.

The product has application in a number of fields from technology to hospitals and was named as one of the top five science breakthroughs in 2012 by CNN.