The idea of taking inspiration from nature may be gaining traction in many industries today, but the natural world has always been a powerful inspiration for designers and inventors. Here are some of the most important objects that take their cue from the world around us.

Among the signature innovations that combined to allow the Wright Brothers to create the first aircraft capable of heavier-than-air flight was an idea taken from observations of pigeons. The brothers noted that in order to initiate a turn or to keep flying straight in the air, the birds point their wingtips in one direction or another. According to the book, Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers, by Fred Howard, those gestures by the birds are achieved in manned flight by angling hinged surfaces at the back of a fixed-wing plane called ailerons.

Hypodermic needles
There’s some disagreement over what biological structure led to this common medical tool. Rest assured, like getting a shot at the doctor’s office, the various possible natural world analogs to the hypodermic needle aren’t anything you want to mess with. The basic concept is to break and penetrate the skin and then to deliver a liquid, a feat achieved by rattlesnake fangs, as well as honeybee stingers and scorpion’s tails.

Our penchant for erecting tall buildings is akin to termite mounds, which can reach up to 30 feet in height. (That’s pretty impressive for tiny insects known for ruining our constructions.) Even if it’s more accurate to call the relationship between our respective species’ skyscraping architecture and termite colonies coincidental, the manner in which African termite mounds are constructed allows for circulating air that maintains a constant temperature just south of 90 degrees inside. That’s a trick that definitely did inspire the air conditioning system of the Eastgate Centre office building in Harare, Zimbabwe, which uses 90 percent less energy than comparable structures.

Tanks require wheels to move, even though--in the case of the military vehicles--the wheels never touch the ground. Instead, they drive a belt-like tread that propels the behemoths along on uneven terrain. Those treads are known as caterpillar tracks and first began appearing on tractors in the mid-1800s. Caterpillars themselves having been moving like this forever, pushing themselves along the ground using prolegs, or nubs, that allow it to grip and push off of surfaces to crawl forward.
While on a hunting trip in the Alps in the 1940, Swiss engineer George de Mestral noted the presence of a number of burrs from thistle plants, which had attached themselves to his dog’s fur. The spikes from the plant projections had essentially hooked into the hair of the pooch. This observation led to the development of the Velcro fastening system, which we’ve used as a shortcut alternative for shoe-tying (among other things) for several decades.

There may be few things as boring as watching paint dry, but what about watching it clean itself? (OK, probably still a snooze.)

Around the turn of the 21st century, German scientists tweaked paint by taking a tip from the Lotus plant’s leaves. Actually, make the several microscopic tips, which project from the surface of a leaf, meaning water can’t stay on it and making it resistant to particles in the air (they come off with the water). Several companies worldwide have tweaked paints so that they dry with a hardly perceptible rough exterior, which means having to scrub down or hose off a wall a lot less frequently.

Gas bombs

According to a 1933 article in Popular Science called “Nature Invented Them First,” gas bombs used in World War I were not a unique innovation to this world. Rather, they were a version of a feat that could be performed by the humble Bombardier beetle, which can quickly conjure a boiling hot, poisonous spray to ward off would-be predators. Today, the mechanism is being studied for more peaceful purposes: to possibly go into the next generation of inhalers or fire extinguishers.

Humanoid robots

As humans, we think pretty highly of ourselves, especially relative to a lot of the other lifeforms with whom we share the planet. So, perhaps the most obvious form of biomimicry to-date is the development of an assortment of robots that appear, move, and behave like we do. So-called humanoids can already walk and gesture like us, and companies such as Honda are developing new technologies based on our own abilities in order to make a new generation of these robots who can move objects and generally interact with the world around them. Hopefully, they are not quite yet advanced enough to take our jobs.

Biomimicry's Greatest Hits

The idea of taking inspiration from nature may be gaining traction in many industries today, but the natural world has always been a powerful inspiration for designers and inventors. Here are some of the most important innovations that take their cue from the world around us.

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