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Ever since we have walked upright, humankind has co-existed alongside animals for hundreds of thousands of years. As we have come to form closer bonds with some (dogs, cats etc…) and closer working partnerships with others (horses, cows etc…) we have also, in the modern age, stolen ideas from them too. Here we are going to take a look at some bits of tech inspired by the animal kingdom (and one from the plant kingdom).
Velcro – AKA Hook-and-Loop Fastener, has been around since it hit the markets in the 1950’s. Unlike the other technologies in this list, Velcro was actually inspired by plant life. Created by Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral, the hook-and-loop fastener comprises of two components, a linear fabric strip with tiny hooks on it that could ‘mate’ with another fabric strip with smaller loops. This created a temporary bond that would stay together until pulled apart by the user. Initially made of cotton, which proved impractical, the fastener was eventually constructed with nylon and polyester.
Mestral was inspired to create this device after he went for a walk in the woods and noticed that the burdock seeds had clung to his coat and dog. Closer inspection of the seeds revealed they worked in a similar fashion to Velcro, the tiny hooks on the seeds catching on the smaller fabric loops of Mestrals clothing.
Cats Eyes – The name of the inspiration behind this iconic piece of British Engineering is pretty obvious but not the whole story. Created by Percy Shaw in 1934, Shaw had noticed that, when the local tram-lines had been removed, he was using the polished strips of steel to navigate at night. Off the back of this, and inspired by the reflective abilities of cat’s eyes, Shaw created and patented the modern cat’s eye.
The reflective lens that is contained inside had already been invented six years earlier for use in advertising signs by Richard Hollins Murray, an accountant from Herefordshire and, as Shaw acknowledged, they had contributed to his idea. In 2006, Catseye was voted one of Britain's top 10 design icons in the Great British Design Quest organised by the BBC and the Design Museum.
Bullet Trains – The Shinkansen are Japan’s fleet of bullet trains that currently whizz passengers around Japan at speeds of up to 320km/h (200mph). Although they have been around for 50 years or so, as they developed and became faster engineers noticed that as the trains left the tunnels, there would be a loud booming sound, loud enough to wake locals and disturb wildlife. This was due to the trains shape and as a result, it would build up a cushion of air as it passed through the tunnel, releasing it upon exiting the tunnel with a loud boom.
Luckily, one of the engineers working on the trains was an avid birdwatcher and had noticed how Kingfishers dived down through the air and into the water without creating much of a splash. The engineer wondered if this could be applied to the trains so that instead of building a cushion of air when travelling through the tunnels, they would just cut through it instead.
As it turned out, the engineer was right. The train moved through the tunnels without creating a boom and also saved the trains 10-15% more energy due the new design being more aerodynamic.
Shark Skin – Sharks have ruled the seas for millennia. They are well known for their acute sense of smell, their regenerating teeth and their awesome hunting prowess but scientists are now looking at their skin. Due to the composition of sharkskin, there are several possible uses for it. Sharkskin is covered in so-called ‘dermal denticles’ which are essentially flexible layers of small teeth. When in motion, these dermal denticles actually create a low-pressure zone. This leading-edge vortex essentially “pulls” the shark forward and also helps to reduce drag. These properties have plenty of applications in the modern world, including swimwear.
The other noticeable benefit of sharkskin is that, due to the dermal denticles, sharks don’t generally host other organisms on their bodies (such as barnacles) and remain relatively clean in seafaring terms. The U.S. Navy has since developed a material, known as Sharklet, based on this skin pattern to help inhibit marine growth on ships. Based on this same idea, many hospitals are also using a biomimetic sharkskin film to combat cross-contamination.
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