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10 Technologies We Stole From the Animal Kingdom

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By David Goldenberg and Eric Vance

People have been lifting ideas from Mother Nature for decades. Velcro was inspired by the hooked barbs of thistle, and the first highway reflectors were made to mimic cat eyes. But today, the science of copying nature, a field known as biomimetics, is a billion-dollar industry. Here are some of our favorite technologies that came in from the wild.

1. Sharkskin—The Latest Craze in Catheters

Hospitals are constantly worried about germs. No matter how often doctors and nurses wash their hands, they inadvertently spread bacteria and viruses from one patient to the next. In fact, as many as 100,000 Americans die each year from infections they pick up in hospitals. Sharks, however, have managed to stay squeaky clean for more than 100 million years. And now, thanks to them, infections may go the way of the dinosaur.

Unlike other large marine creatures, sharks don't collect slime, algae, or barnacles on their bodies. That phenomenon intrigued engineer Tony Brennan, who was trying to design a better barnacle-preventative coating for Navy ships when he learned about it in 2003. Investigating the skin further, he discovered that a shark's entire body is covered in miniature, bumpy scales, like a carpet of tiny teeth. Algae and barnacles can't grasp hold, and for that matter, neither can troublesome bacteria such as E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus.

Brennan's research inspired a company called Sharklet, which began exploring how to use the sharkskin concept to make a coating that repels germs. Today, the firm produces a sharkskin-inspired plastic wrap that's currently being tested on hospital surfaces that get touched the most (light switches, monitors, handles). So far, it seems to be successfully fending off germs. The company already has even bigger plans; Sharklet's next project is to create a plastic wrap that covers another common source of infections—the catheter.

2. Holy Bat Cane!

ultracane1It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: A brain expert, a bat biologist, and an engineer walk into a cafeteria. But that's exactly what happened when a casual meeting of the minds at England's Leeds University led to the invention of the Ultracane, a walking stick for the blind that vibrates as it approaches objects.

The cane works using echolocation, the same sensory system that bats use to map out their environments. It lets off 60,000 ultrasonic pulses per second and then listens for them to bounce back. When some return faster than others, that indicates a nearby object, which causes the cane's handle to vibrate. Using this technique, the cane not only "sees" objects on the ground, such as trash cans and fire hydrants, but also senses things above, such as low-hanging signs and tree branches. And because the cane's output and feedback are silent, people using it can still hear everything going on around them. Although the Ultracane hasn't experienced ultra-stellar sales, several companies in the United States and New Zealand are currently trying to figure out how to market similar gadgets using the same bat-inspired technology.

3. Trains Get a Nose Job for the Birds

When the first Japanese Shinkansen Bullet Train was built in 1964, it could zip along at 120 mph. But going that fast had an annoying side effect. Whenever the train exited a tunnel, there was a loud boom, and the passengers would complain of a vague feeling that the train was squeezing together.

That's when engineer and bird enthusiast Eiji Nakatsu stepped in. He discovered that the train was pushing air in front of it, forming a wall of wind. When this wall crashed against the air outside the tunnel, the collision created a loud sound and placed an immense amount of pressure on the train. In analyzing the problem, Nakatsu reasoned that the train needed to slice through the tunnel like an Olympic diver slicing through the water. For inspiration, he turned to a diver bird, the kingfisher. Living on branches high above lakes and rivers, kingfishers plunge into the water below to catch fish. Their bills, which are shaped like knives, cut through the air and barely make a ripple when they penetrate the water.

Nakatsu experimented with different shapes for the front of the train, but he discovered that the best, by far, was nearly identical to the kingfisher's bill. Nowadays, Japan's high-speed trains have long, beak-like noses that help them exit quietly out of tunnels. In fact, the refitted trains are 10 percent faster and 15 percent more fuel-efficient than their predecessors.

4. The Secret Power of Flippers

One scientist thinks he's found part of the solution to our energy crisis deep in the ocean. Frank Fish, a fluid dynamics expert and marine biologist at Pennsylvania's West Chester University, noticed something that seemed impossible about the flippers of humpback whales. Humpbacks have softball-size bumps on the forward edge of their limbs, which cut through the water and allow whales to glide through the ocean with great ease. But according to the rules of hydrodynamics, these bumps should put drag on the flippers, ruining the way they work.

Professor Fish decided to investigate. He put a 12-foot model of a flipper in a wind tunnel and witnessed it defy our understanding of physics.

The bumps, called tubercles, made the flipper even more aerodynamic. It turns out that they were positioned in such a way that they actually broke the air passing over the flipper into pieces, like the bristles of a brush running through hair. Fish's discovery, now called the "tubercle effect," not only applies to fins and flippers in the water, but also to wings and fan blades in the air.

Based on his research, Fish designed bumpy-edge blades for fans, which cut through air about 20 percent more efficiently than standard ones. He launched a company called Whalepower to manufacture them and will soon begin licensing its energy-efficient technology to improve fans in industrial plants and office buildings around the world. But Fish's big fish is wind energy. He believes that adding just a few bumps to the blades of wind turbines will revolutionize the industry, making wind more valuable than ever.

5. What Would Robotic Jesus Christ Lizard Do?

There's a reason the basilisk lizard is often referred to as the Jesus Christ lizard: It walks on water. More accurately, it runs. Many insects perform a similar trick, but they do it by being light enough not to break the surface tension of the water. The much larger basilisk lizard stays afloat by bicycling its feet at just the right angle so that its body rises out of the water and rushes forward.

lizard

In 2003, Carnegie Mellon robotics professor Metin Sitti was teaching an undergraduate robotics class that focused on studying the mechanics present in the natural world. When he used the lizard as an example of strange biomechanics, he was suddenly inspired to see if he could build a robot to perform the same trick.

It wasn't easy. Not only would the motors have to be extremely light, but the legs would have to touch down on the water perfectly each time, over and over again. After months of work, Sitti and his students were able to create the first robot that could walk on water.

Sitti's design needs some work, though. The mechanical miracle still rolls over and sinks occasionally. But once he irons out the kinks, there could be a bright future ahead for a machine that runs on land and sea. It could be used to monitor the quality of water in reservoirs or even help rescue people during floods.

6. Puff the Magic Sea Sponge

puffThe orange puffball sponge isn't much to look at; it's basically a Nerf ball resting on the ocean floor. It has no appendages, no organs, no digestive system, and no circulatory system. It just sits all day, filtering water. And yet, this unassuming creature might be the catalyst for the next technological revolution.

The "skeleton" of the puffball sponge is a series of calcium and silicon lattices. Actually, it's similar to the material we use to make solar panels, microchips, and batteries—except that when humans make them, we use tons of energy and all manner of toxic chemicals. Sponges do it better. They simply release special enzymes into the water that pull out the calcium and silicon and then arrange the chemicals into precise shapes.

Daniel Morse, a professor of biotechnology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studied the sponge's enzyme technique and successfully copied it in 2006. He's already made a number of electrodes using clean, efficient sponge technology. And now, several companies are forming a multimillion-dollar alliance to commercialize similar products. In a few years, when solar panels are suddenly on every rooftop in America and microchips are sold for a pittance, don't forget to thank the little orange puffballs that started it all.

7. Wasps—They Know the Drill

Don't be scared of the two giant, whip-like needles on the end of a horntail wasp. They're not stingers; they're drill bits. Horntails use these needles (which can be longer than their entire bodies!) to drill into trees, where they deposit their young.

For years, biologists couldn't understand how the horntail drill worked. Unlike traditional drills, which require additional force (think of a construction worker bearing down on a jackhammer), the horntail can drill from any angle with little effort and little body weight. After years of studying the tiny insects, scientists finally figured out that the two needles inch their way into wood, pushing off and reinforcing each other like a zipper.

Astronomers at the University of Bath in England think the wasp's drill will come in handy in space. Scientists have long known that in order to find life on Mars, they might have to dig for it. But without much gravity, they weren't sure how they'd find the pressure to drill down on the planet's hard surface. Inspired by the insects, researchers have designed a saw with extra blades at the end that push against each other like the needles of the wasp. Theoretically, the device could even work on the surface of a meteor, where there's no gravity at all.

8. Consider the Lobster Eye

There's a reason X-ray machines are large and clunky. Unlike visible light, X-rays don't like to bend, so they're difficult to manipulate. The only way we can scan bags at airports and people at the doctor's office is by bombarding the subjects with a torrent of radiation all at once—which requires a huge device.

But lobsters, living in murky water 300 feet below the surface of the ocean, have "X-ray vision" far better than any of our machines. Unlike the human eye, which views refracted images that have to be interpreted by the brain, lobsters see direct reflections that can be focused to a single point, where they are gathered together to form an image. Scientists have figured out how to copy this trick to make new X-ray machines.

The Lobster Eye X-ray Imaging Device (LEXID) is a handheld "flashlight" that can see through 3-inch-thick steel walls.

The device shoots a small stream of low-power X-rays through an object, and a few come bouncing back off whatever is on the other side. Just as in the lobster eye, the returning signals are funneled through tiny tubes to create an image. The Department of Homeland Security has already invested $1 million in LEXID designs, which it hopes will be useful in finding contraband.

9. Playing Dead, Saving Lives

When the going gets tough, the tough play dead. That's the motto of two of nature's most durable creatures—the resurrection plant and the water bear. Together, their amazing biochemical tricks may show scientists how to save millions of lives in the developing world.

Resurrection plants refer to a group of desert mosses that shrivel up during dry spells and appear dead for years, or even decades. But once it rains, the plants become lush and green again, as if nothing happened. The water bear has a similar trick for playing dead. The microscopic animal can essentially shut down and, during that time, endure some of the most brutal environments known to man. It can survive temperatures near absolute zero and above 300°F, go a decade without water, withstand 1,000 times more radiation than any other animal on Earth, and even stay alive in the vacuum of space. Under normal circumstances, the water bear looks like a sleeping bag with chubby legs, but when it encounters extreme conditions, the bag shrivels up. If conditions go back to normal, the little fellow only needs a little water to become itself again.

The secret to the survival of both organisms is intense hibernation. They replace all of the water in their bodies with a sugar that hardens into glass. The result is a state of suspended animation. And while the process won't work to preserve people (replacing the water in our blood with sugar would kill us), it does work to preserve vaccines.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million children die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Because vaccines hold living materials that die quickly in tropical heat, transporting them safely to those in need can be difficult. That's why a British company has taken a page from water bears and resurrection plants. They've created a sugar preservative that hardens the living material inside vaccines into microscopic glass beads, allowing the vaccines to last for more than a week in sweltering climates.

10. Picking Up the Bill

char_toucansamThe bill of the toucan is so large and thick that it should weigh the bird down. But as any Froot Loops aficionado can tell you, Toucan Sam gets around. That's because his bill is a marvel of engineering. It's hard enough to chew through the toughest fruit shells and sturdy enough to be a weapon against other birds, and yet, the toucan bill is only as dense as a Styrofoam cup.

Marc Meyers, a professor of engineering at the University of California at San Diego, has started to understand how the bill can be so light. At first glance, it appears to be foam surrounded by a hard shell, kind of like a bike helmet. But Meyers discovered that the foam is actually a complicated network of tiny scaffolds and thin membranes. The scaffolds themselves are made of heavy bone, but they are spaced apart in such a way that the entire bill is only one-tenth the density of water. Meyers thinks that by copying the toucan bill, we can create car panels that are stronger, lighter, and safer. Toucan Sam was right; today we're all following his nose.

This story originally appeared in a 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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