Biomimicry . . . Nature May Already Have The Solution . . .

Biomimicry . . . Nature May Already Have The Solution . . .

8:05pm Feb 20, 2015
A rough prototype of the watch.
Wake Forest University/Ken Bennett

SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem.

Throughout our society we have developed technology that mimics nature. This is called biomimicry. From airplanes to athletic gear, much of what we use daily is inspired by processes that evolution has had billions of years to perfect. Over the past two episodes of SciWorks Radio we took a look at what innovation actually is, as well as the use of natural Sonar in in bats. This week we’ll put the two together. We spoke again with Dr. Bill Conner, bat specialist and professor of Biology at Wake Forest University.

We really focused on how animals and plants have solved problems. And then we try to use their technology to develop new devices for the betterment of mankind. The classic example is Velcro. Velcro was developed by a plant biologist, and he wondered why the seeds of certain plants stuck to his pants. And when he looked at them with a scanning electron microscope he saw that there was a series of hooks and a series of loops, and from that he developed Velcro, mimicking nature.

A STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) class taught by Dr. Conner used bat-inspired sonar to create an innovative device which may some day help millions of blind people to better navigate the world around them.

We developed a sonar wristwatch. We built it in about a week. It’s a little device that you wear like a wristwatch, and it sends out a high frequency signal, and listens for the echo. When it detects an echo, it then vibrates a little device on the inside of your wrist. So using this you can scan your environment and you can tell when you’re approaching a door, for example. And this is a classic example of biomimicry, because we’re mimicking bat sonar.

Can a vibration on the wrist really tell an individual all that much about their surroundings?

We tested the resolution of the system by scanning objects of different sizes, and they could detect a pencil held up vertically in front of them by scanning. It actually worked much better than we thought it would. We sometimes use students with blindfolds. The students had no trouble walking through a maze of people that we put in front of them, without touching anyone.

As it turns out, projects like this offer students the opportunity to use a variety of different skills.

The great thing about it is the student group got to use some biology; they got to mimic bats. They got to use computer science to develop the technology. They got to learn some hands-on skills, like soldering, which is not trivial, and they were able to build this device. The group named themselves pro humanitech, which goes along with the motto of Wake Forest, which is Pro Humanitate, “For the betterment of mankind,” and in this case they were using technology to help people. It’s a wonderful class, and next semester we hope to work on problems associated with hearing deficits.

For the betterment of mankind, Dr. Conner and his students are taking an approach to develop this device which will allow the technology to be refined and improved by anyone who wants to try.

What we plan to do in the future with this technology, we’re going to make it available for free. And we’re going to make a website that has instructions for building your watch, and for programming it. It’s going to be an open source website so that other individuals can improve the software that goes with it and make it a better and better device. You can basically build one for a little under sixty dollars. There’s a really wonderful organization called the Biomimicry Institute, which is pushing that idea, a lot, that nature has had 4.6 billion years to develop technology, and many of their solutions we should be looking at and copying. Because their solutions tend to be green, we can benefit from that aspect of it as well.

This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of UFOmusic.com. 

Support your
public radio station