How would you like to swim like a fish, fly like a bird, or have the eyesight of a bat? As kids, you would have definitely fantasized about all this. However, children are not the only one who dream about such things, scientists and engineers have been wondering about this for centuries. In fact, they have been trying to copy such natural wonders. This is known as biomimicry, bionics, biomimetics, or bio-inspired design.

When attempting to create manmade flying machines, both Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright brothers studied the way birds fly. Of course, the planes that we have today are still only crude imitations when compared to the intricate control exhibited by birds in flight. Scientists are now going back to the drawing board, or rather, back to the fields and woods, to find inspiration for the latest design trend. As the University of Florida's Science Explorer website explains, the hottest trend today, especially with the military, is miniature airplanes with wingspans of less than six inches, known as micro air vehicles, or MAVs. Like Leonardo, they are looking at birds and insects for engineering ideas. Consider some other examples of products that imitate the engineering marvels in the world around us that we probably take for granted.

Example I

The UltraCane is a product designed and manufactured by Sound Foresight, a company set up in 1998 by a group of researchers from the University of Leeds. The UltraCane is their first product. It was developed to assist the vision impaired to find their way. It uses sound waves to locate objects in front of the user. This device is based on the echolocation used by bats to find their way and avoid even small objects in total darkness. A small electronic echolocation device is attached to a white cane and provides sensory feedback through the cane's handle.

Example II

Morphotex is a fiber material that imitates the color-shifting property of a butterfly's wings (it is named after the Morpho butterfly). It is manufactured by the Japanese company Tejin Fibers Ltd. They use nanotechnology to create 61 layers composed of two separate polymers with different refractive indices. Since it uses light interference instead of dyes or pigments to create color, it uses less energy and is better for the environment. It may be used for textiles or building materials.

Example III

An older, and perhaps better known example of biomimicry is Velcro, or hook and loop fasteners. After noticing how cockleburs stuck to his clothes and his dog's fur after a hike, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral applied for a patent in 1951. In 1952, he began the Velcro company to manufacture a manmade imitation of the hook and loop fasteners that had been used for so long by the offending cockleburs.

Example IV

The website Discoveries & Breakthroughs Inside Science contains numerous articles about scientific breakthroughs in a variety of fields. Several of these discuss biomimicry, including the following examples: Building products, such as plywood and particle board, are now being produced using a glue that was inspired by mussels. Researchers at MIT are copying the water collection system used by a desert beetle. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are creating robots that imitate the ability of some water bugs to walk on water. Other scientists are studying a deep sea organism known as the glass sponge to figure out how to give a fragile substance greater strength. Researchers at John Hopkins, and in other locations, are working with small robots that imitate the behavior of groups of bugs, like cockroaches. Marine engineers are looking at shark skin for ideas on how to make boats glide through the water more efficiently.

The foregoing are just a few examples of biomimicry. Who knows, maybe a simple walk in the woods or swim in the ocean will inspire you to create, or rather to copy, the next great product.