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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Sensor Review, Volume 29, Issue 2
Our theme for this issue is biomimetics which is basically about developing technologies that mimic nature. Our contributions by Jacquelyn Stroble et al. “An overview of biomimetic sensor technology” and Rob Bogue “Inspired by nature: developments in biomimetic sensors” provide an excellent introduction to this area of technology, including some specific examples of natural triumphs.
Although biomimetics gets most of its inspiration from nature, the final technology that is developed is almost always quite different in physical realization. A sort of biology “tribute band”.
The first stage of any biomimetic project is to gain a detailed understanding of how something works in nature. For example, the Melanophila beetles are able to sense infrared radiation following the expansion of thermoproteins.
If you take a broad view of the major developments in the last one hundred years then electronics and computers would feature at or near the top. With memory storage and processing power still following Moore’s law (i.e. doubling every two years) for a time all things looked to be possible using semiconductor technology. If we were unable to do something at a certain moment in time then we just needed to be patient and wait 15 min.
Of course there are very effective infrared sensors that are based on semiconductor technology. PIR movement detectors being one such implementation. However, while I am sure that developments in semiconductor based infrared sensors are continuing, it is also likely that we are nearing the top of the “S” shaped curve, and that these developments will be small incremental changes.
This is where nature comes to our aid. Nature did not set out to develop an infrared sensor for the beetle. It just happened over billions of years by natural evolution based either on small differences between successive generations of the same species or by cross breeding, or by a combination of these two mechanisms. The end result, or at least the result at this stage in its evolution; is a beetle that can detect forest fires at a distance of many kilometers, and presumably this gives it enough time to get itself back down a burrow or wherever else it lives, so that it has a good chance of surviving the inferno.
I consider it most unlikely that our scientists and engineers would have separately come up with the idea of detecting infrared by measuring the expansion of a thermoprotein without the humble beetle showing them the way.
Once you have determined how the natural sensor works the next task is its implementation. Size matters in such things and many developments have only recently been made possible by the progress of nanotechnology and the whole science of making very small structures and mechanisms. We are not yet able to exactly mimic nature’s structures, however this is not necessarily important as long as we can develop mechanisms that do what we want them to do. For example, the expansion of the thermoprotein cannot be measured using an artificial nerve, but we can do it by bouncing a laser beam off structure that includes a layer of the protein, and measuring its deflection.
By marrying together our knowledge of natural mechanisms with a few innovations of our own (nature has yet to develop a laser) we can further expand our technological boundaries.