If you own a cat or a dog, you're familiar with their grooming habits. All of that licking might seem excessive - especially if the dog is doing it under the dinner table or the cat is doing it on the pillow next to your head.
But staying clean is essential to their health and their grooming habits could actually teach hairless creatures such as ourselves how to improve the cleanliness of a range of technologies.
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Drones and other autonomous vehicles, including Mars rovers, are susceptible to failure because of the accumulation of dirt and other airborne particles that interfere with electronics and sensors.
Associate professor David Hu and his colleagues from Georgia Institute of Technology scrutinized more than two dozen studies and analyzed 27 animals to better understand how the critters kept clean. What the scientists found could improve the way sensitive electronics, robots, sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles are kept free of pollen and dirt.
For starters, Hu's team found that hairy animals have a lot more surface area to clean - as much as a 100 times more area, when factoring hair into the equation.
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Stop to consider that a single honeybee has 3 million strands of hair - the same amount as a squirrel. Butterflies and moths have nearly 10 billion hairs. Humans? Just 100,000.
By adding the surface area of the hair to the total surface area of the animal, the scientists discovered that clean-up is a much bigger job than we might assume.
"A honeybee's true surface area is the size of a piece of toast. A cat's is the size of a ping pong table. A sea otter has as much area as a professional hockey rink," David Hu, co-author of a new study on animal hair and cleaning strategies, said in a press release.
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Each animal evolved a way to keep those hairs clean. Cats lick, dogs shake off water, bees bristle, and fruit flies wiggle their hairs in a way that catapults dust at a speed of up to 500 times Earth's gravity.
Animals and insects also employ more passive ways.
Eyelashes on mammals, for example, minimize airflow and funnel particles away from the eyes. Cicadas have sharp points on their wings that act as pincushions, essentially popping airborne bacteria like water balloons.
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Delicate equipment like sensors and robots could be equipped with eyelash-like structures, for example.
Natural grooming motions, like a wet dog shaking off water, could also be copied and used to protect man-made structures from dirt, dust and pollen.
"Understanding how biological systems, like eyelashes, prevent soiling by interacting with the environment can help inspire low-energy solutions for keeping sensitive equipment free from dust and dirt," he said.