Butterfly Wing-Based RFID

The vast array of colors that reflect off the wings of a butterfly are created by varying the angles of microscopic scales on their surfaces. Engineers are trying to understand the science behind those manipulations, which could influence several wave technologies, such as radio frequency (RF), infrared, and Wi-Fi. The company Omni-ID, for instance, is developing RFID tags that can transmit information through both water and metal.

Image: Dottie Mae

…And E-Reader Displays

The light reflecting from the wings of a butterfly creates a prism effect when sunlight hits it. When the wings flap, the prism starts to shimmer as if it’s being turned on and off. Qualcomm is attempting to copy that prismatic phenomenon with its low-power Mirasol displays, which eliminate the need for backlights using a system of two glass sheets and small mirrors. Since ambient light is needed, it’s not suitable for a TV, but could be used in low energy e-readers or cell phones. 

Image: JerryCharlotte

Copying Evolution In Software Design

Natural selection works by creating several designs in parallel and improving on the best ones--or, rather, those that survive to be further developed. So-called genetic algorithms in the realm of software work the same way. Working in iterations, computer networks develop solutions to a problem with constraints inputted by humans, and then test each generation to see which ones are most optimal. Those that are not weeded out are subsequently tweaked until an overall solution is found. NASA’s Evolvable Systems Group has used this method to design a small antenna for its Space Technology 5 satellite, which was launched in 2007.


Woodpecker-Inspired Shock Absorbers

When a woodpecker slams its beak into a tree, it does so with a force that would have most humans seeing stars. But the bird is unfazed, thanks to a four-part shock absorption system that starts with fluid between its brain and skull and ends with slightly elastic bone in its beak. By approximating all four parts with man-made materials, engineers have developed a shock absorption system that can protect gadgets, airplane black boxes, and might even be useful in high acceleration pursuits such as race car-driving or space flight.

Image: Eric Begin

Ant Swarm Computer Security

Swarms abound in biomimicry. The technology sector is no different. Take the project spearheaded by computer scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Wake Forest University, which scans computers by releasing thousands of digital ants to crawl through a hard drive’s software, looking for threats. When one finds something of concern, the signal attached to it strengthens, attracting more ants. Eventually, they can swarm to a location, alerting a human to take action. The behavior mimics real ants that break from routine behaviors to respond to threats by using swarm intelligence.

Image: zetabase

Robots Communicate Like African Cave Crickets

Most crickets rub their wings together. African cave crickets communicate by thrusting their wings forward, creating circular pockets of air, reminiscent of smoke rings. This way, predators cannot interfere with possible mating dalliances. Australian engineers are now appropriating that tactic to create a technology that will allow robots to send stealth communications between one another sent from a cone-shaped projector on one and detected by a pressure sensor on another.

Image: chintho

Virus Batteries

Viruses come into being by self-assembling from parts available in the natural world. Emulating that process, MIT researchers have engineered viruses that are capable of forming the anode (negatively charged end) and cathode (positively charged end) of a battery. The viruses can then detect and bind to carbon nanotube networks to create an organic battery with a low cost of manufacture that is capable of powering everything from hybrid electric vehicles to small electronics.

Image: Sanofi Pasteur

Seashell-Inspired Chip Design

IBM studied nature’s precision in patterning, which is evident in the appearance of seashells and snowflakes, to develop one of its latest chip manufacturing process. Exploiting self-assembling nanotechnology, the company is coating the silicon wafers that make up the base of chips with a synthesized polymer that cures with regularly spaced holes. Those holes create vacuums that reduce capacitance (the amount of interference that adjacent wires conducting electrical signals on the surface of a chip cause one another). As a result, signal flow on a chip is boosted by 35%, and the chips use 15% less power.

Image: D7000Nikon

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The Nature That Has Inspired High-Tech Advances

When you look at a computer or a battery, butterflies and ant swarms may not be what first comes to mind, but engineers and scientists are more and more often turning to the natural world to find new ways to approach technological challenges.

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