Illustrations by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren

In the 1940s, Swiss engineer George de Mestral found burrs stuck to his pants legs and examined their hooks under a microscope. Ten years later, he patented Velcro. De Mestral’s biology-inspired invention is a quintessential example of biomimetics?applying design principles from nature to engineering. In recent years biomimetics has led to numerous innovations, from “self-cleaning” paint based on lotus leaves to new adhesives inspired by the gripping hairs on a gecko’s feet. In his biology laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, biomimetics researcher Michael Dickinson is currently reverse-engineering a fly’s “flight control system” to bring those principles to robotics. To learn more about Dickinson’s laboratory and the physics of flies’ wings, check out the profile Carl Zimmer wrote about Dickinson, “Fly-O-Rama!” from our December 2002 issue (page 28).

What is the benefit of mimicking nature’s designs?

Biological systems have been honed through nearly 2 billion years of evolution to solve certain challenging problems. Some of those solutions may be of utility to engineers, at least as inspiration for solving similar problems in novel ways.

What is the most difficult challenge biomimicry faces?

Humans don’t have access to the fabrication methods that the simplest biological systems possess. Even trivially simple things like hair are produced by very complicated microscopic machinery that can lay down proteins with extremely fine spatial and temporal control. Our fabrication systems–conventional machining or even deposition techniques in electrical engineering and micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS)–aren’t close to that level of sophistication.

Still, biomimetics is on the upswing. Why?

Advances in fabrication technology make it possible to emulate biological principles in the laboratory that would have been sheer fantasy just a few years ago. Also, biologists now know how things work with a higher level of sophistication, whether it’s a protein within a biological membrane or a galloping horse.