Imperial College London

Research showcase on bioinspired design


Bioinspired design

Four early stage academics presented examples of their work on biomimetics last week as part of the latest research showcase.

As part of an ongoing series of quick-fire presentations organised by the Faculty of Engineering, academics from three different faculties showcased examples of their research through timed slide presentations, took part in a lively Q&A session and shared ideas with audience members.

The fields of biomimicry and bioinspired design are naturally multidisciplinary, as scientists and engineers try to seek sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating patterns and strategies found in nature.

By providing a forum for the academic community to network and share experiences, new ideas and approaches may be uncovered that take their cue from the natural world around us.

The lives of social insects

Dr Richard Gill (Department of Life Sciences) presented his interests and fascinations in social insects like ants and termites, particularly in studying the development and organisation of their societies and the factors that influence behaviour.

By examining worker ant colonies, which exist with queens and decentralised control, we uncover a democratic system where a superorganism makes decisions based on the will of its workers. To exist in such a way requires collective intelligence, as well as learning and cognitive behaviours.

To apply this intelligence to a typical example of a travelling salesman, we can discover efficiencies in the way ants take the shortest possible route to travel round a colony and return home. This self-governed approach towards efficiency is something social insects do particularly well, showing us an algorithm which we can use to help solve our own logistical challenges.

Dr Gill also gave examples of self-policing colonies where ants will harass or attack individuals who are deemed to be acting selfishly. Other examples of his work include the study of bee flight dynamics and trajectories, as well as the use of high throughput sequencing to examine the genes that govern social behaviour.

Biomaterials and cellular processes

Dr Iain Dunlop (Department of Materials) presented his work on controlling cellular processes by using biomimetic materials to replicate the precise details of cellular environments.

When people first started introducing artificial materials into the body, they originally made use of what was available at the time, using bio-inert materials like nylon and titanium that wouldn’t harm a patient, but also missing the opportunity to interact with the body constructively.

Modern practice is to present cells of the body with an environment that resembles something less-artificial. More advanced materials are now used, including mineral-releasing materials that stimulate the production of bone by releasing salts into the body.

In the field of biomaterials, scientists are interested in small scale materials that can engage with the huge range of biological processes occurring inside our cells.

Dr Dunlop’s specific research concerns waking up immune cells, specifically the white blood cells that remain dormant when no infection is in the body. By drawing out these cells from a patient and stimulating them to attack a particular disease, we can artificially control this process for cellular immunotherapies.

This research can be used to help design nanoscale drugs and create cell-stimulating biomaterials to treat a range of diseases.

Designing medical devices

Dr Susannah Clarke (Department of Surgery & Cancer) showcased her work engineering patient-matched surgical guidance for orthopaedic surgeries.

With particular emphasis on lower limbs, Dr Clarke’s research involves observing how a patient’s bones have evolved and designing bespoke solutions to their orthopaedic problems.

This involves the analysis of bone morphology, assessing the shape, quality and angle of bone to create mathematical models and shape fitting across different cohorts of people. By creating these models the commonalities in physiology can be determined, as well as the innate differences between patients.

Bone is the one material inside the human body that can return to its original state and can morph into a required structure by constantly remodelling itself and reacting to its environment. The body has evolved to work exactly as it needs to work and we can make use of technology to work in harmony with this process.

Dr Clarke’s work includes scanning patients, segmenting the results and creating 3D models of bones. Patients with specific problems can then be analysed and compared to a range of models in order to find solutions where reconstruction or correction is required.

Biologically inspired flying robots

Imagining the landscape of our future cities and the role robots can play in this environment is the focus of Dr Mirko Kovac’s research (Department of Aeronautics).

From environmental and atmospheric analysis to conducting rescue operations and building infrastructure, aerial robotics can provide solutions that benefit society. The key principle of Dr Kovac’s work is to take inspiration at a conceptual level from nature.

For example, the desert locust is highly efficient in moving in complex environments, with an ability to move across huge obstacles compared to its own size. A jumping robot uses the same principles of mobility, with excellent results in performance.

Another example is the aerial aquatic micro vehicle, which can fly, close its wings, dive into water to take samples and then fly back to its point of origin. Nature has already invented the required technologies of propulsion, water-shedding and wings, and so science makes use of these design principles to create new innovations.

We can also learn from birds that use saliva to build their nests, much like a 3D printer. A small flying vehicle can now replicate this function by depositing material from its body to build up a series of layers and, for example, repair a pipeline leak or even one day construct an entire building.

By studying these efficient biological processes we can model new systems, optimise the process and then create effective designs.

Next event

The next research showcase is on 9 March 2016, with presentations on research into financial technologies. Find out more about this event.


Sean Conner

Sean Conner
Faculty of Natural Sciences

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