Emulating At the Form, Process and System Level

Based on the large number of case studies, emulating nature's forms appears to be relatively easy.  Our knowledge of nature's processes is growing (see page 33 of Julian Vincent's Workshop Talk at the March 2011 Bio-Inspired Workshop in Palo Alto) but it is still often easier, cheaper and faster to follow the 'heat, beat and treat' path. 

Connecting the two data points and extrapolating suggests that emulating systems will be even more difficult, which appears to be supported by the limited number of verified case studies.  A few that come to mind are John Todd's Living Machines, the Wakefield 'cardboard to caviar' industrial ecology project and REGEN Energy's power controllers.  As in emulating process, we often lack a good understanding of how natural systems work at a detailed level.  On the other hand, systems solutions can be built from 'off the shelf' components.  Although the components are important, the innovation in a systems solution is often determined by how the components interact amongst themselves and with the environment.  

The REGEN story (see article on page 7 of the December 2007 Newsletter) is an intriguing example.  Once the inventors had settled on creating a distributed control system using swarm logic, the task of finding experts, coding their understanding of swarm theory into algorithms and developing the hardware and software proved to be relatively straightforward.  The result was a low-cost solution for managing peak power that was easy to install and required no setup or maintenance - the controllers communicate amongst themselves and constantly adapt to their environment.

I suggest that the Schools of fish help squeeze more power from wind farms is another example of emulating a system, in this case how fish optimize their forward motion when traveling in schools.  The wind turbines used in the pilot were commercially units from Windspire Energy Inc.  The innovation was how the wind turbines were arranged such that they increased the collective efficiency of the turbine array.  The process of knowledge transfer between nature and technology is interesting.  In a personal communication, Professor Dabiri said that the mathematics of fluid dynamics in schooling fish and wind turbine farms are quite similar.  Although Dabiri benefited from a personal interest in schooling fish, the inspiration seems to have occurred largely at the level of fundamental math and physics.

What other examples of emulating natural systems are you aware of?  What was the process of knowledge transfer and how difficult was it to develop the final solution?  How do we go about compiling and communicating a set of useful systems-level abstractions that are useful to designers?

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