Animals, birds, and mammals are natural-born innovators that can inspire automotive engineers to create novel technologies. The term for such an influence is biomimicry.
“When people first wanted to fly, they went and looked at birds,” inventor Pete Foley cheerily reminded a 2016 SAE World Congress audience at the popular Tech Hub area in Detroit's Cobo Hall. “We’re still borrowing from nature. The reason I think [biomimicry] has so much potential is because there is so much R&D in nature.”
But just observing birds isn’t the entire answer to flight.
“You really have to get into the details. When it comes to flight and birds, that means you have to understand the aerodynamics of how a bird flies. You have to understand the structural materials of a bird. You have to understand power-to-weight ratios. And you have to understand the [thermal] computations,” he said.
For the past decade Foley, with more than 100 granted or published patents in his portfolio, has applied behavioral science to product design.
“If you’ve got a problem, it’s almost guaranteed that somewhere out in nature it’s been solved,” he asserted.
The first difficulty is knowing where to look. “The second challenge is matching materials and technology. Nature and human engineers tend to work with very different materials,” Foley said. He noted that nature-found solutions typically require a considerable amount of adaptation to elicit a usable application.
How a problem is defined can greatly influence the solution outcome.
“You have to get the right level of abstraction to allow analogies,” said Foley. As an example, if an engineer wanted to solve a fuel pump problem, a conversation with a biologist could be very beneficial—if the fuel pump problem is presented in the right context.
“If you can frame the issue in terms of, ‘I’ve got a problem with moving liquid around the system’, or ‘I’ve got a problem with distributing liquid in a system’, or ‘I’ve got a problem keeping pressure consistent through a system where liquid is moving around.’ If you can describe things at the right level, you can have some very good conversations with biologists,” Foley said.
There are notable examples of nature’s ways being adapted for technology applications. “Biomimicry is being used in related industries,” Foley said, citing Japan's shinkansen high-speed trains whose aerodynamic noses mimic a kingfisher bird’s shape. “A kingfisher can penetrate water with virtually no disturbance whatsoever. And some of the smaller [train] structure is [akin] to the wing tips of a snowy owl. It’s a big bird, and it’s completely silent. They’ve stolen some of the technology from the snowy owl to reduce the noise of those trains.”
The future of biomimicry in the automotive industry is yet to be determined.
“I think that it’s been quite hard for people to make that translation from the technology in nature to the problems we’ve got,” said Foley, “If you want to use nature as inspiration for innovation, you’ve got to be patient. And you’ve got to be willing to roll your sleeves up.”