Transforming Defence: Biomimicry & Bioinspiration
Professor Chris Lawrence - Chief Scientist for Advanced Services and Products and Fellow, QinetiQ
True biomimicry attempts to mimic or copy nature in human-made things, and holds real value to future technologies and the way we function. However, what we see more commonly, at least for now, is “bioinspiration”. This is a more open design method that draws upon nature as inspiration, instead of copying it. And nature can teach us a lot. A human designer tends to work around what they have been taught, what they know and what they have seen before… but nature is far less constrained.
Nature does not follow a linear process. There’s a sizeable element of chance and risk which drives some very surprising solutions. She has instead set a bunch of blueprints loose as part of a massive ‘trial and error’ experiment. These organisms exist in an environment in which they must survive long enough to breed. They must confront a range of problems: maintaining situational awareness; avoiding predators, maintaining homeostasis; finding food, and so on. Militaries confront many of these problems too. And biomimetics isn’t necessarily about finding something new - more often, it looks at how things have been combined in interesting ways. For example, creatures have a limited palette of building materials - scales, feathers, bones and so on. This restricts the designs that can be evolved but, partly because of these constraints, it sometimes leads to highly unusual results. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”…
Biomes, beetles, sharks and shells
Taking the Stenocara beetle as an example, we’ve learned from the way that it collects water from sea breezes, and how it can resist the incredible heat of the desert. Studying desert insects has inspired research into new kinds of moisture collection and technologies with unique thermal properties (which could be used in signature management, or packaging that keeps things cooler for longer).
Another kind of beetle, the Melanophila (also known as the ‘fire beetle’) can only lay its eggs recently burnt wood - and has developed a way of sensing heat from forest fires that are many miles away. Parasites in the mouth of the Mako shark (which is tough enough to break a scalpel) have taught us about how to attach to the supposedly un-attachable. Certain conch shells are capable of withstanding up to eighty times atmospheric pressure - something of potential relevance to the storage of high-pressure gases or submarine design. And of course, understanding different terrains and biomes can help to train, prepare and protect military personnel when they are on active deployment. The list goes on.
One of the better known (and more advanced) research examples is DARPA’s work on natural adhesives, which are seen in nature in things like molluscs that can bind to the side of ships, or frog eggs that stick to rocks. DARPA found that certain proteins are responsible for these sticky properties, and that these proteins can be engineered specifically to certain target materials - which is obviously quite useful in a military context.
This area of research is of great interest to the defence industry and is driving various threads, among others, in the materials research space. For example, QinetiQ has developed spinoff technologies that are inspired by butterfly wings - these hold potential for applications in things like sensors and camouflage. Researchers involved with exciting new work in these areas can often ignore its practical applications. One of our core goals at QinetiQ is to build connections with academia in order to help steer this research, and turn science into technology which provide operational advantage for our customers on the front line and beyond.
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