While engineers have incorporated some natural design techniques over the centuries – thorn bushes, for example, are believed to have inspired barbed wire – humans have mostly overlooked natural solutions.
After thousands of years of human innovation, “there’s only a 12 percent overlap between the way humans have solved problems and the way the rest of the natural world has solved problems,” says Janine Benyus, cofounder of the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting firm in Helena, Mont. “[That] means that almost 90 percent of the time when you’re looking to the natural world for a solution, it’s going to be novel.”
Most of today’s robots work like machines, not animals. While advantageous in some respects, it’s an immense constraint in others.
“If you’re controlling a robot with a computer program, unless you’ve anticipated every possible situation it’s going to get into, it will eventually get into a situation where it has no escape strategy and it will be stuck. Animals never get stuck,” says Dr. Ayers. “What animals do is they wiggle and squirm [until they escape].”
Many autonomous robots use complex sensing networks to interact with their environment. They must sense everything that’s around them before making any movement, a serious computational task that animals do instinctively. Biomimetics, however, is beginning to provide robots with the ability to move without carefully plotting every step.