Nature meets technology at Georgia Tech's conference on bio-inspired design



Associate Professor of Biology Marc Weissburg, left, and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Don Webster, use a set of flumes – essentially artificial rivers – to conduct experiments...
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Through the centuries, nature has inspired countless number of poets, artists and musicians – now engineers are looking to nature to help them solve some of the most complex problems of the day. For two days, May 11-12, researchers from 20 institutions will gather at the Georgia Institute of Technology for the first International Symposium for Biologically-inspired Design and Engineering.

The premise underlying this evolving field is the belief that every animal must solve a particular problem to survive, so every animal embodies a design solution for a particular problem.

"The natural selection and evolution of species provides us with the longest engineering design test of all time," said Jeannette Yen, professor in Georgia Tech's School of Biology. "By studying how organisms solve the problems they face, we get to benefit from the millions of years of knowledge embedded in the DNA of each creature."

While scientists, like Leonardo DaVinci, looked to nature for inspiration centuries ago, biomimetics has recently caught on as a hot area of research at universities across the country. Last year, Georgia Tech launched the Center for Biologically Inspired Design (CBID) as a way to encourage more of the interdisciplinary research that was already taking place among research groups. Now, the center boasts 20 members comprised of researchers from various fields of engineering, biology, chemistry, psychology, applied physiology and architecture.

Other institutions are also expanding biomimetic research. The University of California – Berkeley recently opened a new Center for Interdisciplinary Biological Inspiration in Education and Research. And at the University of Toronto, researchers are busy creating methods for teaching this approach across disciplines.

At this conference, scientists and engineers from institutions, including Georgia Tech, Caltech, Case Western, UC Berkley, the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research, Shandong University and the University of Illinois will present snapshots of their research in progress.

Symposium highlights:

In an effort to create brain-inspired sensors and gain new insight into how memories are formed in the human brain, Hang Lu, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Georgia Tech, is studying how sensory- and memory-related genes are expressed and regulated in tiny micro-sized worms by observing the worms' behavior on an equally micro-sized chip.

While Steven DeWeerth, an electrical engineer at Tech with a focus on biomedical engineering, is working to understand how the body communicates with joints and muscles for movement and balance in order to design robots and prosthetics that replicate the naturally fluid movement of animals and humans. He's using a small robot that closely replicates the balance and movement of a cat, and a frog muscle linked to a virtual robotic leg.

In research that could lead to novel strategies for tissue engineering, repair and replacement, Georgia Tech biologist J. Todd Streelman is looking at fish jaws to better understand the mechanical properties of jaws and teeth under stress.

Researchers from other institutions will present findings on materials inspired by the strength of spider silk, the elasticity of cartilage, the arrangement of butterfly scales, the dry adhesion of gecko hairs for locomotion, fish teeth and the patterns and processes of diatom silica shells.

Other researchers will present research on the propulsive systems used in fish fins, jellyfish jets, insect legs and snake undulations, along with various ways to produce and coordinate these motions. One researcher from Caltech uses Electro Active Polymers, while another researcher from Case Western uses Braided Pneumatic Actuators as muscles in robots. A researcher at Northwestern uses whiskers as robotic sensors. At other institutions, researchers are outfitting robots with jointed legs and sticky toes.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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