Copy Cats: Industry Inspired by Nature

Engineering is one of the fundamental defining characteristics of the human race – you could almost characterise it as an instinctual behaviour.

‘Mans ability to make tools is remarkable. But it is his ingenious ability to make sense of the world and use his tools to make even more scense and even more engenious tools, that makes him exceptional.To paraphrase Winston Churchhill ‘we shape our tools and there after they shape us’.Tools are part of what it is to be human. In the words of Henrey Petroski, ” To engineeris human”.

Transcript from Engineering – a very short introduction by David Brockley.

Our ability to engineer is one of the fundimetal reasons the human race for better or worst left the unrelenting killing grounds of the natural world and after the industrial revolution entered into a deferent realm of living.

However engineers still look to the natural world to solve all kinds of engineering problems and challenges – this is referred to in the industry as bio mimicry which was popularised by scientist and author Janie Bengus  and the concept looks to nature as a “model, measure and mentor and emphases’ sustainability as one of its core principles

here are a few examples.

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This top hat wearing gangster, Mark Brunel rose to engineering fame after he finished the world’s first tunnel under the Thames in 1825, this revolution of engineering was possible due to Brunels invention of a contraption called a tunnelling shield which consisted of a multi-leveled wooden structure crewed by teams of workers and allowed for significantly larger and more stable passageways to be formed under the ground.

The inspiration for this remarkable innovation was from Brunel’s observations of the infamous shipworm Teredo navalis.


Shipworms actually belong to the molluscs family along with snails and clams and have evolved a hardened calcium carbonate shell around their head to protect their soft body as they bore through wood using specially adapted teeth. These creatures can grow up to 60 cm long and are found inside trees in mangrove forests around the world. However, they are also highly adept at chewing through ship timber and were the scourge of many naval fleets over the last 500 years or so.

On his fourth voyage to the Americas in 1502, Christopher Columbus lost all his vessels to shipworms and they are also the reason that no wood was left on the Titanic when the wreck was discovered in 1985.

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I don’t think there are enough holes in this bit of wood

Brunel changed the story of the shipworm from a pest to problem solver, as he partly copied the protective shell to take human tunnel engineering into a new era by developing the first ever tunneling shield – this is an excellent historical example of biomimicry.

Drilly mcdrill face

In the present day, ginormous machines called TBMs (Tunnel Boring Machines) that weigh hundreds of tonnes are used to very slowly and precisely tunnel through mountains and under cities to provide modern man with infrastructure. These TBMs can trace their design heritage all the way back to the humble shipworm,

These TBMs can trace their design heritage all the way back to the humble shipworm,

King fishers and Bullet trains

Japanese Bullet trains can reach speeds of 300 KM per hour.However, an unforeseen problem of this impressive speed was the sudden compression of air when the train entered a tunnel caused a deafening booming sound which as you can imagine was annoying as hell for anyone living near by.

♂ Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) Photograph By Shantanu Kuveskar, Mangaon, Maharashtra, India.jpg

As teams of engineers puzzled to find a solution, one reflected on how he had witnessed how little a splash a kingfisher makes when it hits the water as it murders fish. He took this observation to his colleagues, and they experimented with modelling the front of the train on the unique shape of a kingfisher’s beak. This change solved the compressed air booming problem and also increased the energy efficiency of the train due to improved aerodynamic profile.

Shark Skin

File:Denticules cutanés du requin citron Negaprion brevirostris vus au microscope électronique à balayage.jpg

Sharks have a unique skin in the animal kingdom; it is made up of thousands of modified teeth which are called dermal denticles wich feature longitudinal grooves across them. As the shark passes through water, these grooves create micro vortexes wich increase the hydrodynamic profile of the shark enabling them to conserve energy better when swimming compared to other fish.

This adaptation has been studied by the Naval and Marine industries as coating ships and submarines such a the trident nuclear subs (not sure if it will help with the nuke going in the wrong fucking direction though)with a replica shark skin could dramatically reduce turbulence and drag and therefore improve the vessel’s top speed and fuel efficiency. The dermal denticles are also effective at inhibiting algal growth on sharks/ships due to their unique shape.

Hump Back Whale

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Despite being over 15 metres long and weighing several tonnes humpback whales can perform amazing feats of agility; they are known to work in groups to trap fish by producing controlled streams of bubbles just 1.5 meters across.

They can achieve this precision despite their size because of the unique shape of their flippers which have irregular looking bumps called tubercles across their leading edges that allow them to ‘grip’ the water at sharper angles and make tighter turns.

These tubercles are being studied by the tidal and wind turbine industries as mimicking their shape may be able to significantly increase the energy yield of turbine based types of renewable energies (wind and hydro power).

The Bell Rock Lighthouse

The Bell Rock is the oldest offshore lighthouse in the world as it has endured over 200 years of the fury of the North Sea and still in working condition today, it even survived and attack by the Luftwaffe in world war 2. The lighthouse is based on the Eddystone lighthouse design which was developed by John Smeaton who modelled his design on an old English oak tree that he witnessed survive a powerful storm while other trees were uprooted.

In a world where the natural world becomes ever more distant It is nice to see such cutting edge innovations to be inspired by nature, it has after all being doing this shit much longer than we have.