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To Design the Perfect Drone, Follow Nature’s Lead

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Nature has found some elegant solutions to complicated problems and engineers have long been inspired by its designs. But Adrian Thomas thinks translating the best of nature’s discoveries into man-made devices requires the ability to step back and see the context.

Thomas is a Professor of Biomechanics at the University of Oxford in the UK, and he’s taken an unusual route through academia. After studying zoology at undergraduate level, he went on to study the aerodynamics of bird tails for his PhD, and has published research on everything from experimental animal studies to theoretical fluid dynamics.

He’s also founded a start-up called Animal Dynamics to capitalize on his experience at the intersection between biology and engineering. His company has been given £1.5m by the UK’s Ministry of Defense to design a miniature drone that mimics the way a dragonfly flies. The company is also working on whale-inspired water propulsion and an off-road wheelchair with legs like a spider’s.

The company is not the first to borrow ideas from animals, but what singles their work out, says Thomas, is a deeper focus on the context in which nature’s solutions have arisen.

“Nature’s had a very long time with very intense testing through evolution to perfect the designs, so they will be perfected for something,” he says. “The question is, then, are we looking at the right solution for a problem that we’re interested in?”

He says much work in the field of so-called “biomimetics” is actually just biomimicry – engineers see an elegant solution in nature and copy it. But he says evolution is not necessarily focused on solving the same problem as the engineer and is actually optimizing its design to perfectly balance all the competing selection pressures on the animal in question.

So what Thomas looks for is evidence of convergent evolution. This refers to cases where very different animals with completely different evolutionary histories converge on the same solution.

The best example, he says, is the fact that animals that swim all have the same body shape. That means that design is not about being a shark, a whale or a penguin, it’s about being a fast swimmer.