When nature sets a good example

Bionics is playing an increasingly important role at FHWS

 © Colourbox.de

When technicians no longer know what to do, looking at the biological environment often pays off. Many technical hurdles can be cleared and problems can be solved with the knowledge of how flora and fauna function. The keyword is bionics. At FHWS, various projects are being pursued in this area of research – for example in acoustic insulation as well as in robotics in the future.

The term bionics is a compound word formed from the terms biology and technics. As such, it deals with “research into the successes of biological evolution, their examination for feasibility in the technical field, with the aim of developing new concepts and products”, as the Society for Technical Biology and Bionics defines it. In short: how can I use nature to develop technology further?

Bionics at FHWS

At FHWS, employees in the various laboratories of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering have picked up this question. Bionics is finding its way into research and teaching. In the Experimental Stress Analysis Lab, for example, damping systems for technical systems based on biological models are being researched.

For these damping mechanisms, Prof. Dr. Stefanie Retka has spent a year developing a so-called bottom-up model for “smart structures with tailored damping properties based on a biological model”. The model is the human vocal tract. From its structure, it is possible to deduce how materials for mechanical engineering can be designed with the best possible sound-absorbing properties and therefore continue to meet the criteria for lightweight materials. The vocal tract is significantly damped by the mucous membranes which cover it. From a mechanical viewpoint, therefore, a perfect model for damping mechanisms. However, implementation in the laboratory was done entirely mathematically. “We work on the topic numerically, i. e. we model the vocal tract on the computer and represent it as a fluid structural model,” Retka explains her methodology. “If you then change the geometry in the model and analyse which factors affect the sound in what form, then we can carry that over to technical systems.” 

In the new Robotics bachelor's degree programme at FHWS, students also learn what bionic approaches humanoid and service robots are based on.

Photo of Prof. Dr. Stefanie Retka
Prof. Dr. Stefanie Retka
Picture of the finite element network of the human vocal tract model
Smart structures at FHWS. The picture shows the finite element network of the human vocal tract model. It is possible to see how the air inside the vocal tract vibrates at what frequency. (© Prof. Dr. Stefanie Retka)

Top-down or bottom-up

But aren't many of these things just gimmicks? “Already today, we are seeing coffee machines or fans, for example, in the household sector with app support. The purpose may not yet be apparent,” says Engelmann. “But perhaps we will later identify a purpose which only becomes possible through the availability of technology.” Added value can be generated not only in a private setting, but also in the various fields of business. Thus, the Internet of Things makes entirely new applications possible in production, in logistics, in medicine, in agriculture or in retail. Remote operations, intelligent traffic management and fully automated production lines are just a few ideas here which are already in development.

There are two approaches depending on what the trigger for the bionic research is – nature as a boundless source of inspiration for research and science or a technical problem. In the top-down method, the solution to a technical problem is drawn from similar situations in nature. Once the biological basis has been understood, individual models or construction plans are developed from the analysis results separately from this. In the bottom-up method, natural shapes, structures and functions are investigated and technical models are developed from the regularities. These can then be used in technical and machine processes independently from their biological basis.

In both cases, however, nature is not simply copied. In order to solve the specific problem, nature must be reinvented, so to speak, and adapted for the specific challenges. Just as nature has done time and again during the course of evolution. The Association of German Engineers (VDI) specifies that a product can be designated as “bionic” if the functioning of the underlying biological systems was first analysed and converted into a model which was then used for development of a product.

For Retka’s project, the “analysis of the functioning of the biological system” is provided by Charité in Berlin, which has already extensively researched the vocal tract. Prof. Dr. Jean Meyer, programme director of the Robotics bachelor's at FHWS, also knows that not losing sight of biology in the development of innovative technology is always a cornerstone of bionic research. However, many engineers find abstraction from biology difficult: “As specialist disciplines, biology and technology are very different. There are therefore still many possibilities which have not been seen yet.”

Quote by Prof. Dr. Jean Meyer: “Building a bridge from nature to technology is one thing. Translating the whole thing into production and remaining cost-effective in the process is another.”

Bionics in kinematic robots

For robots, biology is used particularly in their construction. Robot skeletons are recreated from animal skeletons, sensors or cameras from the compound eyes of insects. By now, gripping systems have fingers which are so flexible that they can enclose things like octopus tentacles or an elephant’s trunk do.

In addition to the structure, the behaviour of robots is also optimised taking biological phenomena as an example. The swarm intelligence systems of bees and ants have been able to make the movement processes of entire working groups of robots autonomous and independent, for example.

Meyer himself conducts research on the topic of robotics and autonomous systems. “Building a bridge from nature to technology is one thing. Translating the whole thing into production and remaining cost-effective in the process is another.” The future of bionics in robotics lies in the up to now still very small niche of humanoid and service robots. In five to ten years, however, Meyer sees the greatest economic potential here.

Bionics requires networking

For this potential to also result in concrete implementations, more bridge building is needed between higher education institutions and industry. Bionik-Kompetenznetz e. V. BIOKON advocates for precisely this. A few years ago, BIOKON chairperson Prof. Dr. Antonia Kesel pointed out the many good ideas which are currently lying idle in the laboratories of German higher education institutions in an article in Wirtschaftswoche. BIOKON has also taken on the task of networking higher education institutions, research institutes and businesses and boosting contract research.

Prof. Dr. Retka’s work, for example, could offer solutions for industrial partners with problems in the field of acoustics. The project is therefore collaborating with the car manufacturer Schaeffler Technologies AG & Co. KG. In cars, there is little space left over for installing large damping mechanisms for volume level and noise. Such developments could therefore be particularly beneficial in vehicle and aircraft construction.

According to Retka, such a collaboration with industry makes it possible to “focus more strongly on their interests following the initial promising research results.” This can result in usable results for the company. Retka is thinking ahead here: “The middle ear and the inner ear, which react to pressure waves with vibrations with the eardrum as a membrane, are also interesting here. That could also be envisioned for space-saving constructions in vehicles!”

The potential of nature is far from exhausted. “Flora and fauna have continuously optimised themselves over millions of years and adapted to their environment,” says Prof. Dr. Meyer. “It is often helpful, therefore, to observe nature in the event of technical problems and to look at how nature solved the problem instead of racking your brains for ages in the laboratory.” Meyer recommends not getting too bogged down in the specific diagrams and views – but rather betting on collaboration and exchange.

Quote by Prof. Dr. Jean Meyer: “Flora and fauna have continuously optimised themselves over millions of years and adapted to their environment. “It is often helpful, therefore, to observe nature in the event of technical problems and to look at how nature solved the problem instead of racking your brains for ages in the laboratory.”

More examples of bionics:

  • Solar panels in which the storage modules are based on leaves
  • Solar sail in space travel modelled after the folding mechanism of leaves and beetle wings
  • Wind turbines and helicopters built in the shape of a humpback whale's flippers
  • Building with air conditioning systems which are based on climatic events in termite mounds
  • Adhesives developed on the basis of mussel secretions
  • Glass facades that reflect UV radiation like a spider's web so that birds can sense them and not crash into them
  • Ships which communicate like dolphins and communicate data wirelessly 
  • Robots which, like carnivorous plants, should subsist on only insects
  • Attachment systems like dowels for fixing in the wall based on the structure of cicada mouth parts
  • Car tyres with a profile based on leopard paws 
Photo of Dana Jansen

An article by
Dana Jansen