Innovations Inspired by Animals

Animals are inspiring ideas to help take the pain out of injections, feign enemies in military combat, make better body armor and more.

Animals are inspiring ideas for new medical and high tech innovations that could help take the pain out of injections, feign enemies in military combat, make better body armor and more.

The deceptive behavior patterns of squirrels, for example, inspired Georgia Institute of Technology researchers to design robots that can deceive each other.

Squirrels visit empty caches to fool other animals trying to steal their food. The robots work in a similar way, by luring the "predator robot" to false locations, delaying discovery of protected resources.

Porcupines' barbed quills inspired a team at Harvard University to design needles that deliver less painful injections. Barbed tips slip easily into flesh, requiring less force than regular hypodermic needles.

The project by Harvard's Jeffrey Karp and Robert Langer is being funded by The National Institutes of Health.

Karp, Langer and their team previously created a medical adhesive that, like spider silk, has some sticky and non-sticky areas. The material offers incredible adherence, yet goes on easily and comes off gently, even when it's pulled off rapidly in an emergency situation.

"I strongly believe that evolution is truly the best problem-solver," Karp said.

Gecko feet, covered with a dense mat of finger-like projections, enable these lizards to scurry up vertical surfaces with ease. Nanoscale fibers called spatulae increase the contact area between the gecko's foot and the surface.

With these feet in mind, Karp, Langer and their team created a biocompatible medical adhesive that seals small tissue gaps. It is being tested for use in surgeries, such as repairing blood vessels and sealing up digestive tract holes.

Olympic swimmers sometimes wear what are known as "shark skin suits," according to Russell Mark, USA Swimming's director of biomechanics.

"These aren't made of actual sharkskin, of course, but they are slippery in feel, like sharks, and they make the wearer move faster than normal in the water by reducing friction and drag," he explained to Discovery News.

According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, supersonic jets have structures that work like the nostrils of peregrine falcons in a speed dive.

The birds, clocked at going 200 miles per hour, can still breathe at such speeds thanks to a tiny cone-shaped nostril protrusion that helps to guide airflow. The openings of many jet engines now feature similar cones.

The long, sticky tentacles of jellyfish inspired a new microchip developed by a research team at Brigham and Women's Hospital that once again included Karp. The chip uses a 3-D DNA network made up of long strands, comparable to those of a jellyfish. It is slated for use in cancer detection.

"The chip we have developed is highly sensitive," researcher Weian Zhao explained. "From just a tiny amount of blood, the chip can detect and capture the small population of cancer cells responsible for cancer relapse."

Bat sonar has long had an edge over man-made sonar and ultrasound devices, but scientists are working to decrease that gap. Nathan Intrator of Tel Aviv University's Blavatnik School of Computer Science, in collaboration with Brown University's Jim Simmons, created mathematical models that improve our understanding of the ultrasound process.

"Animals explore pings with multiple filters or receptive fields, and we have demonstrated that exploring each ping in multiple ways can lead to higher accuracy," Intrator said. "By understanding sonar animals, we can create a new family of ultrasound systems that will be able to explore our bodies with more accurate medical imaging."

Researchers hope to improve military body armor, as well as vehicle and aircraft frames, by incorporating the structure of a club-like crustacean arm. The mantis shrimp's "club" is stiff, lightweight, strong, impact tolerant and shock resistant, according to David Kisailus of the Bourns College of Engineering.

He and his colleagues found that it is made out of highly concentrated minerals along with microscopic, rotated layers of complex sugar fibers. This structure is inspiring the new man-made materials.

Dinosaurs on Mars might sound more like a B-movie than something legit, but a team from UC Berkeley came up with an innovative robot design based on how meat-eating dinosaurs, such as T. rex, moved.

The researchers studied living lizards and found that they actively adjust the angle of their tails to remain upright while leaping. "Muscles willing, the dinosaur could be even more effective with a swing of its tail in controlling body attitude than the lizards," team leader Robert Full said.

Understanding this movement allowed Full and his colleagues to develop a robot that, with more tinkering, could be used to land a spacecraft and tackle other tasks.