Nature Does it Best
At Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design, engineers work with biologists to decipher the secrets of design from nature.
All organisms must solve particular problems to survive. To do this, they evolve over time, fabricating a design solution tailored to their specific environments. After 3.8 billion years of existence on Earth, nature has become a warehouse of evolving engineering solutions. Biologists have observed from the sub-atomic level upwards that animals, plants, and insects create ways of sustaining their existence and survivability via methods we are learning about continually.
Nature allows very little waste in its creatures and their creations; every resource has a purpose and rationale for what it does. Knowing this, the Center for Biology Inspired Design (CBID) at Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, Georgia is studying the biological world and transferring this knowledge by educating academia and industry on the lessons learned from nature to create better and more sustainable designs in the engineering world.
If we compare human inventions such as the pyramids, the Hoover Dam, nuclear power, airplanes, and our World Wide Web, we see that humans, as part of nature, have evolved in the world we inhabit. What seems missing in some of our creations is the ability to repair their adverse consequences, enhance resource efficiency, or minimize wasted or misused resources.
Engineers have a mandate to better the lives of people and lessen the negative impact on the environment. They have seen situations throughout history where studying some aspect of nature has contributed to inventions and improvements. But because engineers are not biologists, the examples and data that nature has held close are not always available or fully understood by the inventors. By combining knowledge from biology and engineering, we could develop a major new approach to saving our planet. Known as biomimicry, this involves studying nature’s ideas and using them as a model for designs and processes to solve human problems.
Gold Mine of Possibilities
Craig Tovey, a professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, College of Computing at Georgia Tech, has an in-depth knowledge and interest in the inner workings of the honeybee. An average colony consists of tens of thousands of bees, all with exact assignments that change throughout their six-week life cycle. His knowledge of how the bees swarm and use their resources, especially in unpredictable environments, led to his algorithm for making a server farm more amenable to changes in demands in unpredictable retail environments. The result: decreased lag time for sharing switches, less waste in resource management, and more revenue for the client and host.
What has to occur first is understanding cognitive behavior, how we think and process information relating to these problems. Michael Helms, a Ph.D. student in the College of Computing, stresses, “There are three main functions of the CBID. First, convey why doing bio-inspired designs creates sustainably good designs and enhances innovation. Second, educate students on how to create biologically inspired designs to enhance innovation to take to market. Third, collaboration of multiple disciplines for the use of cognitive science -- the study of mind and behavior -- getting relevant information to help accelerate eco-friendly products with minimized negative environmental affects.”
Students from the classes CBID teaches have reported that even when they were not able to find bio functions to mimic design issues they are addressing, they have found that the exposure has helped them think in a wider spectrum of solutions that may be more valuable in future designs.
Floating Body of Research
As an assistant professor in the School of Physics, Daniel Goldman specializes in understanding the physical principles of how creatures maneuver in complicated materials like sand. His interest in biomechanics of organism locomotion has lead to extensive research using robots to address interaction problems on complex surfaces. Learning the fundamentals of how to create tools that have to support and move in sand-like materials has far-reaching application possibilities.
Meanwhile, David Hu, assistant professor in the College of Mechanical Engineering, has a specialty in fluid mechanics with an interest in biomimetric technology based on nature’s designs. He has studied the way water-walking insects (i.e. water strider) use water tension to move at lightning speeds and not break the surface of the water. As an engineer, he has information that can help create inventions to clean oil spills, which sit on the surface, without causing additional harm below the surface of the water. He is also studying the fundamentals of how crickets feel vibrations from long distances and how flies detect sounds or maneuver with agility and speed. These studies are creating a knowledge base that can be used by both biologists and engineers because of common analogies and functional understanding of specific biological systems.
It becomes clear that CBID is a cross-discipline group that emphasizes using bio-inspired designs to enhance innovation, expand creativity, and build better sustainable designs. The center is creating a new methodology for old problems and embraces examples of biology to accelerate the solutions needed for correcting environmental challenges. Cognitive and physical sciences will help to decipher some of the mysteries about human creativity and biological systems. Engineers and biologists are working to elevate designs to a higher standard and empower people to reach solutions for long-term environmental fixes.
For more information on Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design, visit www.cbid.gatech.edu