How Nature Inspires Technology II: The Wonder of Small Things

We have written before on how nature and its designs have guided the development of man-made technologies down the ages. As designers and engineers, it’s a theme that we are fascinated by and one we continuously revisit.

One particularly riveting area is the wealth of inspiration, clever design and raw material offered to the human world by some of the smallest creatures on the planet –insects.

A recent example is developments at University of Strathclyde where researchers are using the way a fly hears to design a hearing aid based on ground-breaking multi-directional microphone technology. According to ultrasonic engineers at Strathclyde, some types of fly are well-adapted to determine the direction from which sounds come from. Designs based on this adaption could help millions of people who up until now have shunned traditional hearing aids because they offer poor sound quality and performance in noisy environments.

Once you start looking for examples where insects are inspiring cutting edge technologies, you are literally swarmed by them.

At Imperial College in London, robotics experts are looking at how the insect world can be used to improve the next generation of drones. Prototypes include a team of 3D-printing drones designed to work together like termites to build or repair a large structure, or a grasshopper-inspired robot that can jump many times its own height using a complex arrangement of gears and springs.

On a similar uplifting subject, fleas, once regarded as nothing more than pests, may offer the answer to improvements in a host of products from heart valves to running shoes. The reason is resilin, a protein found in their knee joints that enables them to jump 100 times their height and is far more efficient that any synthetic rubber currently available.

Other inspiring examples abound – such as using the way beetles collect the dew from morning mists in deserts to design water catchers for people living in drought-zones, or adapting the crystal-like structures that make up butterfly wings to design more stunning and less power-hungry e-reader screen displays. Amazingly the humble ant may offer the answer to better e-mail management, according to researchers at Stanford University who are studying the insect’s strategies for driving away intruders to improve on the design of spam filters.

These are just a few examples from a fascinating area of study – a topic that becomes all that more spellbinding when you consider that it is estimated around 4 million species of insect have yet to be discovered or categorised across the world. One can only imagine what properties and secrets honed by millions of years of evolution they may have to offer.


Warley Design offers mechanical design, engineering and product development services to a broad range of industries. If you’ve got a project we can help you with please contact us.


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