BIO-INSPIRATION: To Be Inspired by The Living to Think Tomorrow


What is the common point between Velcro, Eastgate Building in Zimbabwe and autonomous Lotusan painting? All these technological innovations have been designed based on natural phenomena: burdock flowers for Velcro, the thermoregulation system of termites for the Eastgate Building and the hydrophobic powers of the lotus flower for painting. As Leonardo de Vinci wrote 500 years ago, “look at nature, this is where your future is”. It is from this precise that bio-inspiration was born and the Tuscan is one of the first to be inspired by living beings to design machines like the Ornithoptera, a flying wing from the observation of the flight of the bird. Today, bio-inspiration is a real phenomenon that inspires both researchers-who invent new materials, new processes, new structures-and companies looking for innovations that allow them to be as competitive as possible. For proof, large groups have decided to invest in this field – L’Oreal, Renault or Dassault Systems and Nouvelle-Aquitaine is one of the French regions at the forefront of the subject, through stimulating research and many companies involved (51 professional and research actors were identified in 2018 by Vertigo Lab and Ceebios). This first watch note of the year takes stock of the major issues related to bio-inspiration.

Bio-Inspiration: Observer of Nature Pour Innovate

Emerging field, as scientific discoveries about the living progress, bio-inspiration can be defined as a mode of operational thinking that seeks in the living, in its capacity of resistance and in its properties of adaptation, the means by which man can identify. This new paradigm assumes that nature, with 4 billion years of evolution, is today an example to follow. By decoding and imitating certain properties of the living, researchers and engineers seek answers and solutions to technological challenges. The most telling example is that of the nose of the very high-speed Japanese train, Shinkansen. The latter was copied to the Kingfisher’s beak in order to reduce speed losses and noise nuisance due to air compression during the passage of the train through tunnels.

Bio-inspiration is embodied in three main areas: in forms and structures (architecture, design), in processes and materials, and in organizations and systems. The objective is to offer efficient innovations that meet the challenges of the market and competitiveness. A second way emerged in the late 1990s following Otto Schmitt’s work in medical bioengineering: bio-mimicry is defined by Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Institute as a philosophy whose ambition is to take nature as a model in order to meet the challenges of Sustainable Development. By introducing this concept of sustainability, the author replaces the respect and protection of the Living centre. The responsibility then lies with researchers to implement bio-inspired innovations that do not endanger the survival of their sources of inspiration.

In September 2015, the EESC (economic, social and Environmental Council) issued an opinion on biomimicry in which several recommendations were put forward: to make initiatives more visible, to remove obstacles to applications, to anchor biomimicry in the educational landscape and finally to make progress towards sustainability. Also, in 2015, was launched the European Center of excellence in biomimicry Senlis (CEEBIOS) whose missions are working for the recognition, development and increasingly regular use of biomimicry in the industrial world around the triptych: training – research – industry. In July 2018, CEEBIOS published a state of the art on biomimicry in France.

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Bio-Inspiration Applies to All Sectors of Activity

As CEEBIOS points out in its report, ” biomimicry as an approach and methodology of innovation is transversal in nature and of interest to almost all sectors of industrial activity”.

The observation and use of the properties of the living are thus found in the universe of forms and structures. The company Eel energy based in Boulogne has developed a fluvial hydroline inspired by the swimming of the Eels: the hydroline takes the form of a membrane of large envelope that waves, like a fish, to the rhythm of the current, as soon as it reaches 0.5 M/s. The goal is to produce up to 30 kw of energy. Also, in the maritime domain, the neo-aquitans of S-Wings rethink surfing thanks to drifts inspired by The Shape of fish fins. The aim is to offer a better propulsion to the board while allowing the surfer to keep a very good control.

Velox is a robot proposed by the company flexible Energy Systems that is able to move underwater as on land, without breaking and with the same mode of locomotion, thanks to a single pair of wings. “These fins can be defined as four-dimensional objects with hyperbolic geometry that allows the robot to swim like a stripe, crawl like a centipede, spring like a squid, and slide like a snake. This robot could, in the future, come to equip amphibious intervention vehicles. The world of insects also inspires research, with diverse issues.

The Wiss Institute of Harvard has created a small robot (the RoboBee) inspired by the Bee: the robot has two biological Wings whose movements are inspired by the real movement of the wings of the bees and a visual system allowing it to adapt in real time its flight to its environment. Eventually, this robot could intervene in disaster areas to easily retrieve information on land inaccessible to humans, but also as a pollinator or as an environmental control station.

By observing the cockroach researchers from the University of California at Berkeley have created Dash (Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod), a robot that responds to certain characteristics of the cockroach (speed, strength, dexterity) allowing it to intervene instead of humans in areas at risk such as contaminated sites, landslides, etc.

CurvACE is an artificial eye project inspired by that of the fly. The objective is to achieve the creation of an electronic “eye” with a non-distorted panoramic field of view. Supported by the European Commission, the ambitious project to equip future autonomous robots related to navigation, as well as the French of Prophesee who draw inspiration from the human eye to improve vision in industrial robotics.

The world of matter is also inspired by the living. Automotive equipment plays the full role of bio-inspiration, especially in the tire world: Goodyear has been inspired by human skin and muscles to produce a self-regenerating tire when Michelin offers a biodegradable, 3D-printed tire. Shark skin, due to its antibacterial properties, has allowed Sharklet to offer Sharkskin an antibacterial bandage allowing an ultra-fast healing, especially for the wounded on the combat zones, or to produce an adhesive film on the surface of which bacteria cannot attach. This film would be particularly interesting in the field of health since it would reduce the risk of exposure to nosocomial diseases in hospitals, for example.

The Shark and More Particularly Its Skin Are A Real Source of Inspiration for Research.
In the medical world, crustaceans can bring much to innovation. Researchers at the Wyss Institute have created a biodegradable plastic based on the structure of shrimp shells that could be used in sutures and regional medicine. Hemarina, a French company, specialises in universal oxygen carriers inspired by sea worms on beaches. A discovery that today serves as a universal blood substitute used in particular for blood transplantation and allowing to preserve organs longer by oxygenating them.

In a context of scarcity of Natural Resources and global warming, by drawing inspiration from the mechanisms of life, research (whether fundamental or operational) could offer more efficient innovations – hence more cost – effective-and more environmentally friendly.