Biomimicry Projects at ESA

For several years the European Space Agency (ESA) has been working on biomimicry projects for space applications. Everyone interested in space-related science and biomimicry should take a look at the project website of the ESA’s Advanced Concept Team. Here I will try to summarize some of the projects that, in my opinion, are the most interesting ones to mention. For more projects and details take a look at the official website of ESA.


Due to long travel times in space, closed-cycle life support systems are required that could be optimized by lowering the astronaut’s energy consumption. The researchers at ESA are therefore trying to learn more about hibernation in animals to see whether these principles can eventually be applied to astronauts on long term space missions in order to lower their consumption of air, water and food. Hibernating animals such as hedgehogs or the arctic ground squirrel are very interesting models to learn more about the mechanisms of hibernation in nature. For instance, the arctic ground squirrel is able to set its body temperature to 32° F (freezing point) during winter. Scientists are still not sure how the arctic ground squirrel can hibernate at such low temperatures but they believe that the so-called A1 adenosine receptor plays an important role in this. For more details take a look at this recently published article in the Washington Post.

Jumping spider vision:

Some jumping spiders are known to have the best vision among invertebrates. This vision aids them during hunting expeditions when the distance of the prey has to be estimated accurately. Therefore, jumping spiders only use one lens with several photoreceptor layers. Light can only be focused on one of the two deepest layers. When light is focused on one of the two deepest layers the image appears blurry on the other layer. It is expected that the amount of blurriness on the one receptor layer is used for depth estimation. A closer look at this blur-to-distance mapping mechanism could inspire depth-from-defocus (DFD) computer vision algorithms useful for distance sensors used in autonomous spacecraft descent, for example. Other application fields could be optical sensors for formation flying and swarm behavior. Such a system could also be used to assist other existing technologies such as SONAR. Since only one lens plus sensors would be required it is expected that such a system would be very energy efficient and last a long time since no mechanical parts are involved in the design.

Tracking of perceptual saliency:

In space robots usually take large amounts of images that have to be sent to ground stations for analysis. The large distance between the robot and the unit analyzing the collected images causes transmission delays. Thus, a real-time analysis is not possible. Also, the storage of large amounts of high definition images might cause data storage problems. Therefore, it would be helpful if the robot itself could evaluate the scientific content of an image taken. Algorithms have to be developed that let the robot identify interesting features in images. Therefore, the robot could be trained using human gaze data collected though an eye tracker. This would allow the robot to learn to take a look at surroundings as if through a human eye.

Further ongoing projects as well as interesting past projects are summarized on the official website of the ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team.

An ecologist’s critique of two concepts of biomimicry

Vincent Blok and Bart Gremmen published an article in the January 2016 Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics titled “Ecological Innovation: Biomimicry as a New Way of Thinking and Acting Ecologically”.  In the article, Blok and Gremmen distinguish and reflect on two concepts of biomimicry. The authors identify a strong, but simplistic, concept of biomimicry that eschews the industrial revolution’s characteristics of domination and exploitation of nature in favor of learning and exploration. Janine Benyus’s philosophy of a second biomimetic industrial revolution and McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle design are examples of this strong concept of biomimicry.  The authors sum up the strong concept as nature is seen as an engineer that has 3.8 billion years of research and development experience and biomimicry is imitation of nature’s models to solve human problems. The weaker and more sophisticated model was developed by Joanna Aizenberg and does not consist of duplication of natural systems, but as inspiration from nature to abstract function, structure, and processes for creative solutions.

The authors critique the strong concept of biomimicry driven by Benyus’ philosophy by identifying three problematic presuppositions.  Their first point is that the strong concept has a strict distinction between copying natural principles and invention.  The authors take an Aristotelian perspective and claim that mimesis includes perfecting what nature is not capable of producing itself.   The authors also critique that natural systems are not fully accessible and understood and limit our capability to copy nature’s models to solve technological problems.  The last presupposition is that nature is complex and temperamental and humans translate and interpret natural phenomena as the standard for ecological health to explore application to technological problems.  Since the resulting technology has been filtered through human understanding, the authors question if the resulting technology is truly ethically right.  The authors feel that the weaker concept of biomimicry is less problematic but does not distinguish between exploitive and dominating technology verses explorative and ecologically ethical technology.

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La Plata Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus)



Rebecca Eagle-Malone holds “Chaco” the La Plata Armadillo. Evening reception, NASA and OAI Biomimicry Summit.

Earlier this month, August 2016, I had the privilege of leading an evening reception for the NASA and OAI Biomimicry Summit in Cleveland, Ohio. (OAI = Ohio Aeronautical Institute). A group of 60 attendees gathered inside the Primates, Cats, and Aquatics Building of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo as we engaged in a discussion of Biomimicry in Your Backyard. I selected three common backyard critters to demonstrate how easy it is to find inspiration in the spaces around us every day: La Plata Armadillo, Eastern Box Turtle, and Children’s Python. This week’s blog will feature our one and only “Chaco” the La Plata Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus).

As we’ve discussed before, biomimicry is accomplished by two possible methods: 1) Start with a question and look to nature for a solution, or 2) Start with an inspiring organism and discover what problems can be solved using that particular structure or behavior. Working in the zoo setting, I typically start with the latter. Whether I am preparing for our Biomimicry/Ecophysiology class within our Advanced Inquiry Program through Miami University of Ohio and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, answering a question from one of our educators while preparing a program, or speaking at an event for Great Lakes Biomimicry, this is the case. I am given an animal and I start my research. My starting point is generally: What makes this organism unique? It is in this uniqueness that inspiration jumps out at you! I encourage all of you to try this any time you have a moment outdoors to think. It is really amazing what a person can dream up once the trigger is pulled. We will start at this point with our armadillo inspiration.


Hairy Armadillo has a soft carapace. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian

What makes an armadillo unique? Particularly, the La Plata Armadillo?  I would play the Jeopardy music in the background, but I don’t think it will take you that long to come up with the answer: the carapace. The scutes are hard dermal bone with keratin—very similar to a tortoise shell. La Plata, also commonly called the 3-banded armadillo, has a shoulder plate and hip plate with dermal hinges to allow flexibility. This is the only species of armadillo that is able to roll into a complete ball, courtesy of a head plate and armored tail. The Hairy Armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) contrastingly, has a soft outer shell.


Tolypeutes matacus is the only species that can roll into a complete ball. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The carapace offers several advantages. Most obviously, perhaps, is protection. The La Plata Armadillo is nearly impenetrable when he rolls into a ball. The only predator that could possibly open this shell needs to have opposable thumbs. However, even with this advantage, most predators would find the benefit (food) is not worth the cost (time) it takes to open.  It also offers fortification measures by pinching the opposition in its hinges.


Another advantage of the carapace for this dweller of arid environments is thermal regulation. While all armadillos live in regions with temperatures between 92-97°F, the La Plata Armadillo can survive even hotter climates. One might think the shell would keep heat trapped inside the body, but the dermal hinges serve as climate control, allowing for air flow between the hinges.

Lastly, all armadillos have this really cool ability to travel across water. How?! They can hold their breath for really long periods of time. This allows them to walk on the bottom of riverbeds and waterways. What if they don’t want to walk? Like other mammals, they can suck in air and float across the water! Nothing can stop these guys from getting to the other side!

So I ask … what does the armadillo inspire in you?

Drilling evolutionary theories from primitive technology

In Cats’ Paws and Catapults (1998), Steven Vogel compares the mechanics of nature and human technology. He acknowledges the crucial differences between these two “schools of design,” but still draws attention to a list of similar factors shaping and constraining both innovation processes. For instance, he mentions incremental progress as being a common feature:

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Fossil Doesn’t Equal Failure

Hi all, Thanks again for tuning in. I recently had the opportunity to speak at the first annual national biomimicry forum and education summit. The following is a transcript of the talk I gave including some of the associated imagery. Hope you all enjoy Fossil Doesn’t Equal Failure: Continue reading

Image converted using ifftoany

Brains, Brains, Brains…

“If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.” Lyall Watson

Summer time! For me it means working on bio-inspired algorithms, one in particular I’ve been spending some time on is Artificial Neural Networking (ANN). This had me asking my sister (who is working on her PhD in neuroscience) about how synapses, pathways, etc. work. This post will be on how ANN was inspired and some of the materials I found interesting on it. Let’s start with the obsession with neural network and why it matters? Machines do complicated mathematical calculations in a matter of seconds, yet they have difficulty performing some easy tasks such as recognizing faces, understanding and speaking in local languages, passing theTurning test. OK, let’s compare machines to our brain: A single transistor in your home computer is quite fast; only limited by speed of light and the physical distance to propagate a signal. A signal(Ions) in the neuron, on the other hand, propagates on a fraction of the speed (Flake, 1999). This begs the question, which is better? A good comparison can be found here. One main fact is that our brain makes use of a massive parallelism; it’s this massive interaction between axons and dendrites that contribute to how our brain works. Many argue that the comparison to computers is not very useful as they work differently from each other. Can we make a digital reconstruction of human brain? I follow Blue Brain project for this. Hence, as you can guess ANN algorithm is a simple imitation of how our neurons work. It works by feed forward and back propagations to learn patterns. Originally proposed as McCulloch-Putts neuron in the 1940s and 1980s by invention of Hopfield-Tank feedback neuron network. The 1960s had an good optimistic start on neural networks with the work of Frank Rosenblatt’s perceptron (a pattern classification device). However, by 1969 there was a decline in this research and publication of Perceptrons by Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert caused it to almost die off. Minsky and Papert showed how a single perceptron was insufficient with any learning algorithm by giving it mathematical proofs. It took a while and many independent works till the value of Neural Networking came to light again. One main contribution is the two-volume book titled Parallel Distributed Processing by James L. McClelland and David E. Rumelhart and their collaborators. In this work, they changed the proposed unit step function proposed to a smooth sigmoid function and added a backward error signal propagation using weights of some hidden neurons called back propagation (Flake, 1999). Reading through chapter 20 of Parallel Distributed Processing written by F. Crick and C. Asanuma, I read about physiology and anatomy of the cerebral cortex. It shows different neural profiles.

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.35.30 AM(McClelland, 1989)

It talks about different layers in the cortex such as the superficial, upper, middle, and deep layer, axons, synapses, neurotransmitters. The more I read, the more I come to appreciate the complexity of our brain and wonder about the simplicity of Artificial Neural Network algorithms, and can’t help but feel amazed by what Blue Brain Project is aiming to do.

Like a house-cat exploring its environment, lets dive into narrow unexplored places…


Flake, G. W. The computational beauty of nature, 1999

McClelland, J. L. Rumelhart, D. E. Parallel distributed processing, Volume 2. Psychological and biological models, 1989

5 Nature Lessons About Being an Entrepreneur

Last week I had the pleasure to submerge myself in the rainy, flat, yet beautiful landscapes of the Netherlands.

Dunes of Loon and Drunen National Park, Netherlands

Together with about 25 others we spend a week to learn more about how Biomimicry Thinking can be applied to Social Innovation, a workshop given by Toby Herzlich and Dayna Baumeister. My personal interest in entrepreneurship made me question: “What can we learn from nature about being an entrepreneur?”

Yes, nature has entrepreneurs too, they are called pioneer species. Fireweed, a pink flower that appears as first after a huge forest fire, is one example. They are the species that are the first colonizers of harsh environments and are the drivers for ecological successions that ultimately lead to a more biodiverse and stable ecosystem.

1. You should not strive for a perfectly balanced Work/Life

Almost daily a new article appears in which tips are exposed to obtain a healthy work/life balance. Well, if we follow nature’s advice, we could keep trying to find it, but in nature there is no such thing as a “balanced” state. Although the overall appearance might seem in balance, the truth is that this is the result of a dynamic non-equilibrium or a constant flow of states to come as close as possible to equilibrium. One of the main reasons: (natural) disturbances will occur, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.

So, what is the best way to cope with this “stress” of having to deal with (unexpected) disturbances that throw you in unbalance? One is most resilient when being a “generalist” rather than a “specialist”; or in other words: don’t try to be extremely good at one specific thing.

Translating this to ourselves: If work becomes so dominant that you develop your personal skills almost only in your field of work (e.g. becoming extremely productive at managing your work, or being an uber smart coder — usually “hard” skills), you will have a very hard time to enjoy your non-work life (e.g. spending a relax time with your family — usually “soft” skills). Nature’s advice is to develop both your hard and soft skills so that you more easily can adapt to either your work-self or your life-self.

By the way: just the fact that we call them “work” and “life” is already a sign that something is totally wrong. You should be alive at work.

2. As a pioneer you usually grow fast and die young

Perhaps the most shocking news from nature: as a pioneer you only have a very temporary role to play. You are the one to appear as first since you are able to withstand those harsh conditions that others can’t. You can withstand the hard winds, the low nutritious soil, or the high currents. Even better, you thrive in them, making you grow fast and reproduce in high amounts. Together with your peers of pioneers you will change the conditions of your environment, you are making them more accessible for others to come and stay. But as soon as they have arrived, your role is to leave space for them, and find a new, underdeveloped area.

Seems like there is a good reason why you see so many serial entrepreneurs. If you are good at seeing new business opportunities and making them viable, perhaps your role should be just that. Why stay at one place and try to compete with the next generation (e.g. managers, CEO’s)? Can you accept that others are better at growing your business idea?
If so, you might have found your best talent and will enjoy to plant many new seeds and let them be grown by others.

3. Your pioneering role is to create conditions for the next generation

As a pioneer you are the first to colonize, but you are not there to stay. Being able to thrive in harsh conditions your job is to fix the sand or soil, to make nutrients more accessible, to enrich the soil, to create shelters from hard winds, etc. Suddenly other species will find out that the harsh conditions changed, and became viable to them. They will start settling and as they are better in other things than you, for example they need less resources or they are better at making friends (called mutualistic relationships in nature), they will take over. The end stage of ecological successions is a stable, biodiverse ecosystem, like the redwood forest and coral reefs.
Change in nature is accepted as a good thing.

4. You have two different ways to impact your environment

Apparently there are two ways a pioneer can change its environment:
i) change the environment directly; e.g. a beaver that builds dams will cause changes in the river flow,
ii) change itself, which indirectly affects the environment; e.g. coral needs CO2 to grow, taking it from the sea water thus creating a CO2-poor environment around the corals.

How can we apply this to ourselves?
As an entrepreneur you can introduce a new product into the world, which creates an entire new market. Think cars, mobile industry, and computers.
Or you can change yourself, affecting your environment. Examples that come to mind are: Not believing that the world is flat, literally throw our world upside-down. Or the fact that industry is now becoming more and more circular thanks to those thought-leaders that couldn’t accept our linear thinking and realized that “waste” doesn’t exist.

In both cases, what you are doing is preparing the environment to attract followers that usually will take over and be the ones to make the actual long-lasting change. If your startup doesn’t make it into a real company, that doesn’t mean you failed. On the contrary: you set a new stage for others that are perhaps better at running a big company, but you sure made a difference!

5. You should know what kind of messages you are sending and to whom

You come home after a long day, are hangry and your partner is in the sofa watching a TV show. You mumble to yourself “pfff why haven’t you made dinner yet!” and start cooking with a grumpy face. After 10 mins you are so angry and yell, “HEY, I’m home! Why haven’t you made dinner yet? I’m starving!”. Your partner stands up from the sofa, and says: “I made dinner for us, it’s in the oven and the table is set outside.”

Familiar? What happens is that you are sending messages that aren’t perceived by the other. Although you might think your partner heard you mumbling, he probably hasn’t. As he is watching an interesting TV show he didn’t even noticed that you were so hungry. He already knew dinner would be ready in 15 min but didn’t realize he should have told you.

There are many great examples in nature where a specific message is perfectly aligned between the sender and the receiver. Flowers not only send out a yummy smell to attract bees, they also have a beautiful UV pattern that shows them the way to their nectar. We as humans don’t see UV so these patterns/message would be totally useless if it were to guide us.

Next time your message isn’t being acted upon, ask yourself: “Who is my receiver, and which message is the most clear for them to understand what I need?”

Further Readings — Inspiring books

  1. The Nature of Business: Redesigning for Resilience — Giles Hutchins
  2. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature — Janine Benyus
  3. Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World— Brian Walker PhD
  4. Business Ecology: Giving your Organization the Natural Edge — Joseph M Abe
  5. All I Need To Know About Business, I Learned From a Duck — Tom Porter


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Evolutionary Context in Biomimicry

So this week, I picked up watching chef documentaries in my free time. Inevitably, in the course of the documentary, the chef goes to a farm, a boat, the forest, or a market to find ingredients which comprise a part of one of the stunning dishes shown in a montage later in the documentary. The chef in the scene searches for only the most remarkable ingredients. During the scene, the supplier will usually discuss the ingredient in some amount of detail to help the audience better appreciate the care which goes into producing that ingredient. One which really caught my attention was a discussion on mescal. The producer collects the agave and separates them not only by species, but also by growing location and age. Context is key in making the best possible product. This led me to think about the role of context in seeing what we can achieve in biomimicry.


Photo Credit: User – Unsplash.

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