Published: Oct. 27, 2021 By

Orit Peleg at her apiary
Above: Assistant Professor Orit Peleg at her apiary.
Header image: A leaf sits on a circuit board. Several new faculty hires in CU Engineering take inspiration from nature when conducting research.  

When Assistant Professor Orit Peleg was a student, some of her teachers used elegant examples from nature to explain hard-core physics and engineering concepts. The clarifying effect, she said, was incredible.

“To discuss light polarization, we learned about dung beetles, who use the light polarity of the moon to navigate in the dark, for example,” said Peleg. “The natural analogies between technology evolved by humans and related behaviors evolved around us in nature has stayed in my mind since then, and I incorporate it in both my research and teaching to this day.

Peleg’s research within the College of Engineering and Applied Science and the BioFrontiers Institute works to understand the behavior of disordered living systems – from honeybees to plants – by merging tools from physics, biology, engineering, and computer science. The work could have lasting implications for many fields, including the design and use of autonomous systems for everyday life. Studying how fireflies move and react to each other may improve and help coordinate a swarm of robots working together in the future, for example. 

“In my lab, we study biological communication networks such as chemical communication networks in honeybees and visual communication networks via flashing in fireflies,” she said. “We try to understand how they evolved those distributed algorithms that are actually superior to our current human telecommunication networks when it comes to handling unknown environments and interference.” 

Peleg is one of several new faculty hires in CU Engineering with a deep interest in bio-inspired engineering. While they are all looking at different forms, functions and problems, their shared interests in the natural world could drive exciting new interdisciplinary projects and research areas, said Associate Dean for Research Massimo Ruzzenne.

“We have added a tremendous amount of talent in this area,” he said. “Bio-inspired engineering is a familiar concept, but I think the team we have assembled in addition to those already working in this area in the college will push the research into new and exciting areas over the next three to five years with great application and use across society.”

Read more: Work with bees could unlock potential strength of natural designs

A bio-inspired design process

Professor Francois Barthelat likes to discuss terminology with colleagues and students whenever possible. It helps define the shape and scope of projects, clarifying and illuminating potential paths forward toward usable solutions.

Francois Barthlelat portrait

Professor Francois Barthelat

He said the term “bio-inspired engineering” is widely accepted and used today – referring to the study of biological systems to identify specific structures, features, concepts, properties, functions or mechanisms that can then be implemented in synthetic systems. It is, essentially, the “transfer of technology” from biology to engineering, he said.

“Another term is ‘biomimicry,’ which is less favored in my mind because it implies that you simply copy what you see in biology. For example, the design of airplanes that would flap their wings to fly, by simply mimicking birds and without any understanding of the underlying aerodynamics, is a shallow approach that has led to spectacular failures,” he said. “And then another term is ‘nature-inspired design,’ which is not quite accurate either because the terms would also include non-biological organisms like minerals or climate.”

Barthelat joined the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering in 2019. His group looks to nature for inspiration in creating stronger, lighter, smarter and more sustainable materials. In a recent paper, his team uncovered the engineering secrets behind what makes fish fins so strong yet flexible. Those insights could one day lead to new designs for robotic surgical tools or airplane wings that change their shape with the push of a button.

Kaushik Jayaram observes insects in nature to develop robotic devices that benefit and enhance human capabilities.
“In the end, materials produced by nature must fulfill functions that are quite familiar to engineers, such as structural support in skeletons or protection against mechanical threats with protective shells of thin scales,” he said. “The biological materials we find around us today have passed the test of time and have been around for millions of years, which testifies of their remarkable mechanical efficiency and reliability. The way nature achieves the properties required for these functions is always elegant, and sometimes surprising.”

Assistant Professor Kaushik Jayaram’s mechanical engineering lab studies bio-inspired robotics and related topics that often intersect with the Autonomous Systems Interdisciplinary Research Theme. By looking at the ways spiders traverse their uneven and constantly shifting environment, for example, he is hoping to understand how autonomous robots can be designed to overcome obstacles or recover if damaged during search-and-rescue missions.

He prefers  the term “bio-inspired” as well, adding that it tends to capture the essence of the field more broadly and in a more useful way. He emphasized that researchers are not copying a solution from nature, but instead borrowing an idea, analyzing it to distil the concept into a principle and finally combining it with the best human engineering practices when it is advantageous.

“Nature can be a good source of inspiration because it is essentially a diverse library of functional designs. We can study that library to understand the pros, cons, and constraints under which these solutions evolved,” he said. “And as our technologies take on more characteristics of nature, this approach can become even more powerful.”

Collaboration is key

Franck Vernery
Professor Franck Vernerey, standing, and a student in the lab.

Professor Franck Vernerey’s group studies forces and deformation in materials – often exploring the intersection of biological and synthetic materials with an eye toward health and medical applications. Through the years, they have looked at fish scales, fire ants, and worm motion for inspiration, using statistical mechanics and computational modeling to understand the physical principles that govern those systems and how they impact outcomes at the macroscale.He said the work ranges from fundamental to applied research with focus on synthetic and dynamic polymers, living matter and the blending of the two. 

A recent project through the AB Nexus initiative with collaborators here and on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus is a great example of the work in his lab. It aims to develop the first growth plate organoid – a miniature, 3D, and anatomically correct version of that area of tissue – that can then be used to study bone growth, development, and genetic diseases. The highly interdisciplinary project would establish a presently unknown link between the origin of mechanical forces and cellular organization, he said.

“That is where having multiple people in the college working on different aspects and projects can be really beneficial,” he said. “Going from understanding biophysics to theory, engineering, and fabrication is obviously the goal and a real challenge. Addressing that process starts with talking to like-minded people who can help build those bridges.”

Read more: Fish fins are teaching us the secret to flexible robots and new shape-changing materials