bionics

bionics

[bahy-on-iks]
bionics, the study of living systems with the intention of applying their principles to the design of engineering systems. Drawing on interdisciplinary research in the mechanical and life sciences, bionics has been used to develop audiovisual equipment based on human eye and ear function, to design air and naval craft patterned after the biological structure of birds and fish, and to incorporate principles of the human neurological system in data-processing systems. Another application has been the development of experimental artificial limbs that can be controlled by a person's thoughts and retinal implants consisting of an electrode array that receives visual data from an external camera.
Bionics (also known as biomimetics, biognosis, biomimicry, or bionical creativity engineering) is the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology. The word "bionic" was coined by Jack E. Steele in 1958, possibly originating from the Greek word "βίον", pronounced "bion", meaning "unit of life" and the suffix -ic, meaning "like" or "in the manner of", hence "like life". Some dictionaries, however, explain the word as being formed from "biology" + "electronics".

The transfer of technology between lifeforms and synthetic constructs is, according to proponents of bionic technology, desirable because evolutionary pressure typically forces living organisms, including fauna and flora, to become highly optimized and efficient. A classical example is the development of dirt- and water-repellent paint (coating) from the observation that the surface of the lotus flower plant is practically unsticky for anything (the lotus effect).

Examples of bionics in engineering include the hulls of boats imitating the thick skin of dolphins; sonar, radar, and medical ultrasound imaging imitating the echolocation of bats.

In the field of computer science, the study of bionics has produced artificial neurons, artificial neural networks, and swarm intelligence. Evolutionary computation was also motivated by bionics ideas but it took the idea further by simulating evolution in silico and producing well-optimized solutions that had never appeared in nature.

It is estimated by Julian Vincent, professor of biomimetics at the University of Bath in the UK, that "at present there is only a 10% overlap between biology and technology in terms of the mechanisms used".

History

The name biomimetics was coined by Otto Schmitt in the 1950s. The term bionics was coined by Jack E. Steele in 1958 while working at the Aeronautics Division House at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. However, biomimicry or biomimetics is more preferred in technology world in efforts to avoid confusion between the medical term bionics. Coincidentally, Martin Caidin used the word for his 1972 novel Cyborg, which inspired the series The Six Million Dollar Man. Caidin was a long-time aviation industry writer before turning to fiction full time.

Methods

Often, the study of bionics emphasizes implementing a function found in nature rather than just imitating biological structures. For example, in computer science, cybernetics tries to model the feedback and control mechanisms that are inherent in intelligent behavior, while artificial intelligence tries to model the intelligent function regardless of the particular way it can be achieved.

The conscious copying of examples and mechanisms from natural organisms and ecologies is a form of applied case-based reasoning, treating nature itself as a database of solutions that already work. Proponents argue that the selective pressure placed on all natural life forms minimizes and removes failures.

Although almost all engineering could be said to be a form of biomimicry, the modern origins of this field are usually attributed to Buckminster Fuller and its later codification as a house or field of study to Janine Benyus.

Roughly, we can distinguish three biological levels in the fauna or flora, after which technology can be modeled:

  • Mimicking natural methods of manufacture
  • Imitating mechanisms found in nature (velcro)
  • Studying organizational principles from social behaviour of organisms, such as the flocking behaviour of birds, the foraging behaviour of bees and ants, and the Swarm Intelligence(SI)-based behaviour of a school of fish.

Examples of biomimetics

  • Velcro is the most famous example of biomimetics. In 1948, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral was cleaning his dog of burrs picked up on a walk when he realized how the hooks of the burrs clung to the fur.
  • Cat's eye reflectors were invented by Percy Shaw in 1935 after studying the mechanism of cat eyes. He had found that cats had a system of reflecting cells, known as tapetum lucidum, which was capable of reflecting the tiniest bit of light.
  • Leonardo da Vinci's flying machines and ships are early examples of drawing from nature in engineering.
  • Julian Vincent drew from the study of pinecones when he developed in 2004 "smart" clothing that adapts to changing temperatures. "I wanted a nonliving system which would respond to changes in moisture by changing shape", he said. "There are several such systems in plants, but most are very small — the pinecone is the largest and therefore the easiest to work on". Pinecones respond to warmer temperatures by opening their scales (to disperse their seeds). The smart fabric does the same thing, opening up when it is warm, and shutting tight when cold.
  • "Morphing aircraft wings" that change shape according to the speed and duration of flight were designed in 2004 by biomimetic scientists from Penn State University. The morphing wings were inspired by different bird species that have differently shaped wings according to the speed at which they fly. In order to change the shape and underlying structure of the aircraft wings, the researchers needed to make the overlying skin also be able to change, which their design does by covering the wings with fish-inspired scales that could slide over each other. In some respects this is a refinement of the swing-wing design.
  • Some paints and roof tiles have been engineered to be self-cleaning by copying the mechanism from the Nelumbo lotus.
  • Nanostructures and physical mechanisms that produce the shining color of butterfly wings were reproduced in silico by Greg Parker, professor of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton and research student Luca Plattner in the field of photonics, which is electronics using photons as the information carrier instead of electrons.
  • The wing structure of the blue morpho butterfly was studied and the way it reflects light was mimicked to create an RFID tag that can be read through water and on metal.
  • Neuromorphic chips, silicon retinae or cochleae, has wiring that is modelled after real neural networks. S.a.: connectivity
  • Synthetic or "robotic" vegetation, which aids in conservation and restoration, are machines designed to mimic many of the functions of living vegetation.
  • Medical adhesives involving glue and tiny nano-hairs are being developed based on the physical structures found in the feet of geckos.

Specific uses of the term

In medicine

Bionics is a term which refers to the flow of concepts from biology to engineering and vice versa. Hence, there are two slightly different points of view regarding the meaning of the word.

In medicine, bionics means the replacement or enhancement of organs or other body parts by mechanical versions. Bionic implants differ from mere prostheses by mimicking the original function very closely, or even surpassing it.

Bionics' German equivalent, "Bionik", always adheres to the broader meaning, in that it tries to develop engineering solutions from biological models. This approach is motivated by the fact that biological solutions will usually be optimized by evolutionary forces.

While the technologies that make bionic implants possible are still in a very early stage, a few bionic items already exist, the best known being the cochlear implant, a device for deaf people. By 2004 fully functional artificial hearts were developed. Significant further progress is expected to take place with the advent of nanotechnologies. A well known example of a proposed nanodevice is a respirocyte, an artificial red cell, designed (though not built yet) by Robert Freitas.

Kwabena Boahen from Ghana was a professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. During his eight years at Penn, he developed a silicon retina that was able to process images in the same manner as a living retina. He confirmed the results by comparing the electrical signals from his silicon retina to the electrical signals produced by a salamander eye while the two retinas were looking at the same image.

Politics

A political form of biomimcry is bioregional democracy, wherein political borders conform to natural ecoregions rather than human cultures or the outcomes of prior conflicts.

Critics of these approaches often argue that ecological selection itself is a poor model of minimizing manufacturing complexity or conflict, and that the free market relies on conscious cooperation, agreement, and standards as much as on efficiency - more analogous to sexual selection. Charles Darwin himself contended that both were balanced in natural selection - although his contemporaries often avoided frank talk about sex, or any suggestion that free market success was based on persuasion, not value.

Advocates, especially in the anti-globalization movement, argue that the mating-like processes of standardization, financing and marketing, are already examples of runaway evolution - rendering a system that appeals to the consumer but which is inefficient at use of energy and raw materials. Biomimicry, they argue, is an effective strategy to restore basic efficiency.

Biomimicry is also the second principle of Natural Capitalism.

Other uses

In a more specific meaning, it is a creativity technique that tries to use biological prototypes to get ideas for engineering solutions. This approach is motivated by the fact that biological organisms and their organs have been well optimized by evolution. In chemistry, a biomimetic synthesis is a man-made chemical synthesis inspired by biochemical processes.

Another, more recent meaning of the term "bionics" refers to merging organism and machine. This approach results in a hybrid system combining biological and engineering parts, which can also be referred as a cybernetic organism (cyborg). Practical realization of this was demonstrated in Kevin Warwick's implant experiments bringing about ultrasound input via his own nervous system.

In 2006 Mercedes-Benz introduced its Bionic concept car.

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