Insect compass, creeper that fights fires: nature drives innovation


Even as man-made climate change threatens the environment, nature continues to drive technological progress.

“The solutions that nature provides have developed over millions of years and are tested every day over the centuries,” says Evripidis Gkanias, a researcher attached to the University of Edinburgh.

Gkanias has a special interest in how nature can guide artificial intelligence.

“Human creativity may be fascinating, but cannot hold a candle to nature’s robustness – and engineers know this,” he says.

From compasses to fake insect eyes and bushfire-fighting robots that react like vines. Here’s a collection of some nature-driven tech standouts this year.

Insect compass

Some insects, such as bees and ants, navigate visually based on the intensity and polarization of sunlight and therefore use the sun’s position as a reference point.

Researchers have imitated this eye structure to create a compass that determines the sun’s location in the sky, even on overcast days.

Ordinary compasses rely on the Earth’s weak magnetic field to navigate, and this is easily disturbed by electronics.

A prototype of the compass that detects light “already works excellently”, says Gkanias who the study that in Communications Engineering appeared, led.

“With the necessary financing, it can be transformed into a more compact lightweight product” that is readily available, he says.

And with a few more changes, the insect compass can work anywhere on the planet where a large celestial light source is visible.

Cobweb collecting water

Material inspired by the silky threads of a spider’s web and which can collect drinking water from morning fog, may soon play an important role in regions suffering from water shortages.

The artificial threads follow the example of the garden spider, whose intricate “spool knots” allow it to catch and move large drops of water on the web.

Once the material can be produced on a large scale, the water that is collected can reach “a significant scale for real application”, says Yongmei Zheng, co-author of a study published in Advanced Functional Materials appeared.

Tendrils that fight fires

However, animals are not the only source of inspiration from nature.

Scientists have created an inflatable robot that “grows” in the direction of light or heat, in the same way that a creeper can climb up a wall or over a forest floor.

The roughly two-metre-long robot can steer itself using fluid-filled pouches, rather than expensive electronics.

Over time, the robots can find hot spots and release fire suppression material, says a researcher from the University of California in Santa Barbara.

“The robots are slow, but that’s okay if, for example, you want to fight a smoldering fire, like peat fires that are a big source of carbon emissions,” says co-author Charles Xiao.

However, before the robots can ascend the site, they must be made more heat resistant and agile.

Kombucha circuits

Scientists at the Unconventional Computing Laboratory in Bristol, England, have also found a way to harness slimy kombucha mats – produced by yeast and bacteria during the fermentation of the popular tea-based drink – to create “kombucha electronics”.

The scientists printed electrical circuits on dried mats that could light up tiny LED lights.

Dry kombucha mats have the same properties as some textiles and even leather, but they are sustainable and biodegradable and can also be submerged in water for days without being damaged, the researchers say.

“Wearable kombucha products may even incorporate sensors and electronics into the material itself, providing seamless and unobtrusive integration of technology with the human body.” For example, it could be used for heart monitors or sensors that measure your steps, said the lead researcher, Andrew Adamatszky.

The mats are lighter, cheaper and more flexible than plastic, but the researchers warn that the durability and mass production will still require a lot of work.

Small roller robots

Ietermagogs look almost like a cross between a pinecone and an anteater and the little animals, covered in scales, are known to curl up into a ball when danger threatens.

Now a tiny robot can use the same “design” to save lives, according to a study published in Nature Communications was placed.

It is supposed to roll through the intestines before they open and deliver medicine or stop internal bleeding in parts of the body that are usually hard to reach.

Lead author Ren Hao Soon, from the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, was watching a YouTube video when he came across the maggot and realized that the imitation of the animal would be a perfect fit.

Soon needed a soft material that would not cause damage to the inside of the human body, but with the advantages of a hard material that can, for example, conduct electricity.

The yetermagog’s unique structure was perfect.

The tiny robots are still in the initial phase, but can be produced for just €10 (about R203).

“It is natural to look to nature to solve these kinds of problems,” says Soon.

“Every single part of an animal fulfills a particular function. It’s really elegant.”