Bats can sip water while they're flying. Understanding that feat could help design flying machines that can draw up water on the go--for firefighting, for example.  Image source: Wikimedia commons.

Bats can sip water while they’re flying. Understanding that feat could help design flying machines that can draw up water on the go — for firefighting, for example. Image source: Wikimedia commons.

More and more, engineers are looking to biological systems for inspiration. Can we make a more efficient flying machine by studying a bat wing? Can we make a quieter wind turbine by looking at owl feathers? Could schools of fish inspire “smart” traffic control?

Virginia Tech has a new center specifically dedicated to this type of research: the Center for Bioinspired Science and Technology (BIST). The center is directed by Rolf Mueller, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering whose research plumbs the complexities of bat biosonar. Other researchers find inspiration in the adaptations developed by birds, fish, and insects to live efficiently in their environments.

What makes biological systems so useful as models for engineered ones?

Evolution, Mueller said.

“Evolution is in a class by itself, but it has a lot of similarities to engineering optimization,” Mueller explained. Both processes have a goal — like to walk efficiently on uneven terrain, or move air from one place to another — that they approach gradually through trial and error. Prototypes are produced and tested. Unsuccessful models are discarded; successful ones are refined further.

“The amazing thing with biology is the enormous timescale. You have a lot of prototypes, and each prototype is evaluated in the real world,” Mueller said. Engineers, though, are more constrained: they typically have to choose between building a few prototypes to test in real conditions, or setting up a computer model to test a lot of prototypes in simulated conditions.

Evolution, though, has had billions of years to run its optimization, testing huge numbers of prototypes in real conditions.

The results of that tremendous optimization protocol have been meticulously recorded in the organisms themselves.

Those biological systems are a living record of the of the processes that yielded their finely-tuned adaptations; they can point engineers towards strategies that have already been field-tested. All that data, Mueller explains, “is a natural resource that we should mine more.”

The BIST center is partially supported by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

Read more on the BIST center from VT News.