Nature Does it Best

At Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design, engineers work with biologists to decipher the secrets of design from nature.

By Karen Pickett-Woodland

As director, biology professor Jeannette Yen heads the center.

All organisms must solve particular problems to survive. To do this, they evolve over time, fabricating a design solution tailored to their specific environments. After 3.8 billion years of existence on Earth, nature has become a warehouse of evolving engineering solutions. Biologists have observed from the sub-atomic level upwards that animals, plants, and insects create ways of sustaining their existence and survivability via methods we are learning about continually.

Nature allows very little waste in its creatures and their creations; every resource has a purpose and rationale for what it does. Knowing this, the Center for Biology Inspired Design (CBID) at Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, Georgia is studying the biological world and transferring this knowledge by educating academia and industry on the lessons learned from nature to create better and more sustainable designs in the engineering world.

If we compare human inventions such as the pyramids, the Hoover Dam, nuclear power, airplanes, and our World Wide Web, we see that humans, as part of nature, have evolved in the world we inhabit. What seems missing in some of our creations is the ability to repair their adverse consequences, enhance resource efficiency, or minimize wasted or misused resources.


Industrial engineering professor Craig Tovey studies honeybees and applies his findings to computer servers.

Engineers have a mandate to better the lives of people and lessen the negative impact on the environment. They have seen situations throughout history where studying some aspect of nature has contributed to inventions and improvements. But because engineers are not biologists, the examples and data that nature has held close are not always available or fully understood by the inventors. By combining knowledge from biology and engineering, we could develop a major new approach to saving our planet. Known as biomimicry, this involves studying nature’s ideas and using them as a model for designs and processes to solve human problems.

Gold Mine of Possibilities
“It is like a gold mine of working examples in nature waiting to inspire biologically designed solutions from an engineering perspective,” says Jeannette Yen, CBID’s director and a professor in Georgia Tech’s College of Biology. “The course we teach, Bio Inspired Design, encourages exploring nature to facilitate our ability to mimic biological strategies. The challenge is getting enough information relevant to the problem we face, to see the already evolved working solution in nature. Surface similarities are a start, but it is not until we can decompose the problem and nature’s example that we can realize how many innovative possibilities can be applied. We are in the business of ‘expanding the design space’ with new biologically designed ideas and making new associations. It takes interdisciplinary involvement to make this work for any industry, the collaboration of multiple knowledge bases intertwining to achieve good, sustainable solutions.”

Daniel Goldman’s sandbot robot walks on sand so he can learn how it maneuvers on unstable surfaces.

Craig Tovey, a professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, College of Computing at Georgia Tech, has an in-depth knowledge and interest in the inner workings of the honeybee. An average colony consists of tens of thousands of bees, all with exact assignments that change throughout their six-week life cycle. His knowledge of how the bees swarm and use their resources, especially in unpredictable environments, led to his algorithm for making a server farm more amenable to changes in demands in unpredictable retail environments. The result: decreased lag time for sharing switches, less waste in resource management, and more revenue for the client and host.
Typically, biologists and engineers may see the same functions in both their environments, but when communicating, biologists may use different language to explain them, causing a chasm that might obscure substance engineers need for their inventions. CBID has begun the enormous process of bridging that gap. They are working on linking the knowledge bases from both disciplines for cross-referencing common functions to find solutions to various societal problems.

What has to occur first is understanding cognitive behavior, how we think and process information relating to these problems. Michael Helms, a Ph.D. student in the College of Computing, stresses, “There are three main functions of the CBID. First, convey why doing bio-inspired designs creates sustainably good designs and enhances innovation. Second, educate students on how to create biologically inspired designs to enhance innovation to take to market. Third, collaboration of multiple disciplines for the use of cognitive science — the study of mind and behavior — getting relevant information to help accelerate eco-friendly products with minimized negative environmental affects.”

Seems Intuitive
According to Marc Weissburg, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, “The idea of applying biological systems to human problems seems intuitive.” Cognitive science helps us understand how the intuitive aspect works. “CBID is unique in that we are working to make this a standard initiative, a sub discipline or methodology, to be incorporated at the basic design level globally.” To create designs using this method comes from understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the use of biology as a design model. Bio-inspired design “depends on an evolutionary process that doesn’t always result in optimal design. This is not fatal, because it makes you think carefully about the problem and find a biological system that finds that same problem strongly important also.”
For example, when we create an airplane and use birds or flying insects as examples, there are specific functional constraints. Birds or flying insects don’t have to be concerned with the functions of long-distance, level-constant-speed flight with a big payload. Adversely, they have conquered multi-functions, dynamic stability, and robust ability to move in varying terrains. These are functions that biological systems are good at handling. Comparison analysis becomes critical by forcing the study of core to surface level components to identify properties and associate compatible solutions.

Daniel Goldman (left) and Chen Li, a graduate student who helped create the sandbot robot (in his left hand), stand over surfaces that it walks in.

Students from the classes CBID teaches have reported that even when they were not able to find bio functions to mimic design issues they are addressing, they have found that the exposure has helped them think in a wider spectrum of solutions that may be more valuable in future designs.
Ashok Goel, associate professor of computer and cognitive science in the School of Interactive Computers, director of the Design Intelligence Laboratory, and adjunct professor in the School of Psychology, says cognitive science will help develop a computer tool to bridge the language gap between the biologist and engineer. “It is important to understand what it is about biological systems engineers need to know.” CBID will gather information over long periods of time observing biologists and engineers working together and how they talk to each other and what kinds of designs they create with common understanding and basic language interpretation. This defines what is important from an engineering perspective.

Floating Body of Research
“By looking at the process over time, we can build tools based on the theory of analogical processes,” Goel adds. The tool will capture all readily available data on biological systems for the engineer. The data to update the tool will be entered by any biologist with access to the web. For example, a botanist in Costa Rica could enter information on a biological system in the rainforest. That information in an engineering analogy would be quickly available for comparative analysis. The artificial intelligence of the tool will be learning and growing with every new entry and building comparable functions for a vast resource of accessible data. The intention is to empower the user with a database of analogical processes, allowing searches for comparable functions in a simple and easy-to-use format to build good sustainable designs.

A mechanical engineering professor, David Hu studies water-walking insects. Among other things, this can lead to inventions that clean oil spills.

As an assistant professor in the School of Physics, Daniel Goldman specializes in understanding the physical principles of how creatures maneuver in complicated materials like sand. His interest in biomechanics of organism locomotion has lead to extensive research using robots to address interaction problems on complex surfaces. Learning the fundamentals of how to create tools that have to support and move in sand-like materials has far-reaching application possibilities.

Meanwhile, David Hu, assistant professor in the College of Mechanical Engineering, has a specialty in fluid mechanics with an interest in biomimetric technology based on nature’s designs. He has studied the way water-walking insects (i.e. water strider) use water tension to move at lightning speeds and not break the surface of the water. As an engineer, he has information that can help create inventions to clean oil spills, which sit on the surface, without causing additional harm below the surface of the water. He is also studying the fundamentals of how crickets feel vibrations from long distances and how flies detect sounds or maneuver with agility and speed. These studies are creating a knowledge base that can be used by both biologists and engineers because of common analogies and functional understanding of specific biological systems.

It becomes clear that CBID is a cross-discipline group that emphasizes using bio-inspired designs to enhance innovation, expand creativity, and build better sustainable designs. The center is creating a new methodology for old problems and embraces examples of biology to accelerate the solutions needed for correcting environmental challenges. Cognitive and physical sciences will help to decipher some of the mysteries about human creativity and biological systems. Engineers and biologists are working to elevate designs to a higher standard and empower people to reach solutions for long-term environmental fixes.

For more information on Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design, visit

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