Definition of Bionics
Bionics is the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology.
The word bionic was coined by Jack E. Steele in 1958, possibly originating from the technical term bion (pronounced BEE-on; from Ancient Greek: βίος), meaning ‘unit of life’ and the suffix -ic, meaning ‘like’ or ‘in the manner of’, hence ‘like life’. Some dictionaries, however, explain the word as being formed as a portmanteau from biology and electronics. It was popularized by the 1970s U.S. television series The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, both based upon the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin, which was itself influenced by Steele’s work. All feature humans given superhuman powers by electromechanical implants.
The transfer of technology between lifeforms and manufactures is, according to proponents of bionic technology, desirable because evolutionary pressure typically forces living organisms, including fauna and flora, to become highly optimized and efficient. A classical example is the development of dirt- and water-repellent paint (coating) from the observation that the surface of the lotus flower plant is practically unsticky for anything (the lotus effect).
The term “biomimetic” is preferred when reference is made to chemical reactions. In that domain, biomimetic chemistry refers to reactions that, in nature, involve biological macromolecules (for example, enzymes or nucleic acids) whose chemistry can be replicated using much smaller molecules in vitro.
Examples of bionics in engineering include the hulls of boats imitating the thick skin of dolphins; sonar, radar, and medical ultrasound imaging imitating the echolocation of bats.
In the field of computer science, the study of bionics has produced artificial neurons, artificial neural networks, and swarm intelligence. Evolutionary computation was also motivated by bionics ideas but it took the idea further by simulating evolution in silico and producing well-optimized solutions that had never appeared in nature.
It is estimated by Julian Vincent, professor of biomimetics at the University of Bath’s department of mechanical engineering Biomimetics group, that “at present there is only a 12% overlap between biology andtechnology in terms of the mechanisms used”.
The name biomimetics was coined by Otto Schmitt in the 1950s. The term bionics was coined by Jack E. Steele in 1958 while working at the Aeronautics Division House at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. However, terms like biomimicry or biomimetics are more preferred in the technology world in efforts to avoid confusion between the medical term bionics. Coincidentally, Martin Caidin used the word for his 1972 novel Cyborg, which inspired the series The Six Million Dollar Man. Caidin was a long-time aviation industry writer before turning to fiction full-time.
Often, the study of bionics emphasizes implementing a function found in nature rather than just imitating biological structures. For example, in computer science, cybernetics tries to model the feedback and control mechanisms that are inherent in intelligent behavior, while artificial intelligence tries to model the intelligent function regardless of the particular way it can be achieved.
The conscious copying of examples and mechanisms from natural organisms and ecologies is a form of applied case-based reasoning, treating nature itself as a database of solutions that already work. Proponents argue that the selective pressure placed on all natural life forms minimizes and removes failures.
Although almost all engineering could be said to be a form of biomimicry, the modern origins of this field are usually attributed to Buckminster Fuller and its later codification as a house or field of study to Janine Benyus.
Roughly, we can distinguish three biological levels in the fauna or flora, after which technology can be modeled:
- Mimicking natural methods of manufacture
- Imitating mechanisms found in nature (velcro)
- Studying organizational principles from the social behaviour of organisms, such as the flocking behaviour of birds, optimization of ant foraging and bee foraging, and the swarm intelligence (SI)-based behaviour of a school of fish.
- In robotics, bionics and biomimetics are used to apply the way animals move to the design of robots. BionicKangaroo was based on the movements and physiology of kangaroos.
- Velcro is the most famous example of biomimetics. In 1948, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral was cleaning his dog of burrs picked up on a walk when he realized how the hooks of the burrs clung to the fur.
- The horn-shaped, saw-tooth design for lumberjack blades used at the turn of the 19th century to cut down trees when it was still done by hand was modeled after observations of a wood-burrowing beetle. It revolutionized the industry because the blades worked so much faster at felling trees.
- Cat’s eye reflectors were invented by Percy Shaw in 1935 after studying the mechanism of cat eyes. He had found that cats had a system of reflecting cells, known as tapetum lucidum, which was capable of reflecting the tiniest bit of light.
- Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines and ships are early examples of drawing from nature in engineering.
- Resilin is a replacement for rubber that has been created by studying the material also found in arthropods.
- Julian Vincent drew from the study of pinecones when he developed in 2004 “smart” clothing that adapts to changing temperatures. “I wanted a nonliving system which would respond to changes in moisture by changing shape”, he said. “There are several such systems in plants, but most are very small — the pinecone is the largest and therefore the easiest to work on”. Pinecones respond to higher humidity by opening their scales (to disperse their seeds). The “smart” fabric does the same thing, opening up when the wearer is warm and sweating, and shutting tight when cold.
- “Morphing aircraft wings” that change shape according to the speed and duration of flight were designed in 2004 by biomimetic scientists from Penn State University. The morphing wings were inspired by different bird species that have differently shaped wings according to the speed at which they fly. In order to change the shape and underlying structure of the aircraft wings, the researchers needed to make the overlying skin also be able to change, which their design does by covering the wings with fish-inspired scales that could slide over each other. In some respects this is a refinement of the swing-wing design.
- Some paints and roof tiles have been engineered to be self-cleaning by copying the mechanism from the Nelumbo lotus.
- Cholesteric liquid crystals (CLCs) are the thin-film material often used to fabricate fish tank thermometers or mood rings, that change color with temperature changes. They change color because their molecules are arranged in a helical or chiral arrangement and with temperature the pitch of that helical structure changes, reflecting different wavelengths of light. Chiral Photonics, Inc. has abstracted the self-assembled structure of the organic CLCs to produce analogous optical devices using tiny lengths of inorganic, twisted glass fiber.
- Nanostructures and physical mechanisms that produce the shining color of butterfly wings were reproduced in silico by Greg Parker, professor of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton and research student Luca Plattner in the field of photonics, which is electronics using photons as the information carrier instead of electrons.
- The wing structure of the blue morpho butterfly was studied and the way it reflects light was mimicked to create an RFID tag that can be read through water and on metal.
- The wing structure of butterflies has also inspired the creation of new nanosensors to detect explosives.
- Neuromorphic chips, silicon retinae or cochleae, has wiring that is modelled after real neural networks. S.a.: connectivity.
- Technoecosystems or ‘EcoCyborg’ systems involve the coupling of natural ecological processes to technological ones which mimic ecological functions. This results in the creation of a self-regulating hybrid system. Research into this field was initiated by Howard T. Odum, who perceived the structure and emergy dynamics of ecosystems as being analogous to energy flow between components of an electrical circuit.
- Medical adhesives involving glue and tiny nano-hairs are being developed based on the physical structures found in the feet of geckos.
- Computer viruses also show similarities with biological viruses in their way to curb program-oriented information towards self-reproduction and dissemination.
- The cooling system of the Eastgate Centre building, in Harare was modeled after a termite mound to achieve very efficient passive cooling.
- Adhesive which allows mussels to stick to rocks, piers and boat hulls inspired bioadhesive gel for blood vessels.
- Through the field of bionics, new aircraft designs with far greater agility and other advantages may be created. This has been described by Geoff Spedding and Anders Hedenström in an article in Journal of Experimental Biology. Similar statements were also made by John Videler and Eize Stamhuis in their book Avian Flight and in the article they present in Science about LEVs. John Videler and Eize Stamhuis have since worked out real-life improvements to airplane wings, using bionics research. This research in bionics may also be used to create more efficient helicopters or miniature UAVs. This latter was stated by Bret Tobalske in an article in Science about Hummingbirds. Bret Tobalske has thus now started work on creating these miniature UAVs which may be used for espionage. UC Berkeley as well as ESA have finally also been working in a similar direction and created the Robofly (a miniature UAV) and the Entomopter (a UAV which can walk, crawl and fly).