From the editor's desk: Innovation inspired by nature

August 2014 News

Biomimicry is a relatively new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve current technological problems. The underlying principle is that nature, over billions of years of evolution, has already discovered solutions to many of the engineering problems we humans are still grappling with today. Animals, plants and microbes are all consummate design engineers according to the Institute of Biomimicry.

Holistically, nature has solved a complex set of system dynamics that needed to be worked out and integrated in ways that eliminate waste almost entirely. The science of biomimicry depends more on observing how nature has done this than it does on inventing new theories or formulae. Modern computational tools are however an indispensible aid for modelling and optimisation of the equivalent human solutions. In a series of video lectures, co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild Dr. Dayna Baumeiter explains that while humans will never be able to fly like dragonflies, the laws of physics just do not allow it, but there are some deep-seated design principles to be learnt by studying their wings.

The industrial revolutions of the past were all based on taking resources from nature and refining them into something else. Biomimicry, on the other hand, views nature as a source of recipes and blueprints. One of the most famous of all the inventions to come out of this copycatting approach is Velcro. It was invented by a Swiss engineer who decided to take a closer look at the burrs he removed from the coat of his dog after a hunting trip in the Alps. Under a microscope he discovered an ingenious set of hooks at the end of the burr needles and the idea for Velcro was born.

The aerodynamic design of bullet trains was influenced by a bird-watching engineer in a Japanese rail company who observed how the kingfisher hardly creates a ripple when it darts into the water in search of its prey. The train’s redesigned nose – a 20 metre long steel kingfisher beak – solved the noise pollution problems associated with the pressure waves that build up at the front of the train.

In an industrial automation context, Festo is a company doing a lot of work in this regard. In previous issues of this magazine we have published articles about the inspiration coming out of the Festo Bionic Learning Network. The ultra-light BionicOpter based on the design of the dragonfly and the pneumatically controlled robotic ExoHand are two that spring to mind.

This month it is the turn of the BionicKangaroo, a remarkable design that demonstrates how integrated automation solutions using mobile pneumatics can be used to recover, store and efficiently reuse potential energy. Condition monitoring as well as the precise control technology ensures the required stability when jumping and landing. The energy status of the kangaroo and other variables are constantly monitored and evaluated and these are fed into complex control algorithms for triggering the cylinders and motors. In addition to the benefits of mobile pneumatics, Festo believes that the principle of permanent diagnostics will in the future contribute to operational safety and process stability in the industrial automation environment. More in 'Festo demonstrates bionic kangaroo'.

SAIMC Gala Dinner

After the highly successful event at the Birchwood Hotel last year, the organising committee has been hard at work to put together an even better function this year. The lion’s share of the work has once again been done by Hanli Kritzinger of élancommunications and our own SAI&C product manager Jane van der Spuy. They have done a fantastic job of finding a new venue, designing the programme for the evening and overseeing the menu. There are also some innovative sponsorship ideas available to interested companies. All surplus funds generated by the SAIMC from the evening will be donated towards FIRST Tech projects – a very worthwhile cause. We hope to see you all there.

Steven Meyer

Editor: SA Instrumentation

& Control


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