“There are so many fun and unique and interesting ways” that animals have evolved “to solve problems, and some of these solutions are ones humans never thought of,” says Lisa Manning, the director of the BioInspired Institute at Syracuse University in New York. It is one of many research organizations around the world where scientists get inspiration for inventions from other living things.
The BioInspired Institute, which started in 2019, and others like it may be new, but Manning says bioinspiration has been around for a long time. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci invented flying machines based on bat and bird wings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Alessandro Volta “looked at the behavior of the electric eel” to invent the battery, Manning says.
Scientists at the BioInspired Institute study fruit flies to understand how their brains process information and honeybees to help prevent bleeding in patients. Zhenyu Gan is a mechanical and aerospace engineer at Syracuse. He makes robots, in particular, robots with two or four legs, as opposed to robots with wheels or tracks. “I have been playing around with these kinds of toys since I was a kid and obsessed with Transformers,” he says.
Legged robots would be useless if they could not stand or walk. To figure out how they should operate, Gan looks to animals such as horses and tiny hopping rodents called jerboas. “The first thing we have to understand is the fundamental differences” among the movements of the these animals, Gan says.
Robots inspired by humans are usually kind of clumsy, partly because humans have “bulky” legs compared to some other animals, says Gan. But we also have to constantly control our legs to keep ourselves from falling over. That uses a lot of energy. A horse has four legs to give them more stability. The bulkiness of their legs is also closer to their torsos, making them faster and more efficient.
Robots such as the ones Gan is developing have lots of uses. They might be used to explore Mars and other parts of space. Hospitals started using doglike robots during the pandemic to talk to patients. Police departments use legged robots to search burned areas and collapsed buildings for survivors.
There are lots of solutions to problems that humans have come up with without looking at nature. “They work, and they are simpler,” says Manning of the BioInspired Institute. “But they are not as robust” as bioinspired inventions, “and they can’t handle changes to the environment, as well as animal solutions can.”