Bionics - history, topics and examples

Learning from evolution means learning technology

Evolution can only work with the existing material and is by no means perfect: orangutans, for example, are tree dwellers, but are not 100% optimally adapted to tree life. In humans, diseases such as damage to the intervertebral discs result from upright walking.

For almost all problems that arise in human constructions, there are counterparts in nature that offer models to solve this problem: the glider flight of the condor shows, for example, how a large body can fly in the air without falling, and the bodies of penguins, dolphins and sharks show which shapes are best to move underwater.

What is bionics

Bionics, bio- (logic) and (technology) mean the scientific practice to transfer biological solutions to human technology. Zoologists, botanists and neurobiologists, chemists and physicists work together with doctors, engineers and designers.

Technical biology and bionics

While technical biology researches the relationships between form, structure and function and uses technical methods for this, bionics tries to technically implement structures and structures of nature.

Biological functions, adaptations, processes, organisms and principles offer solutions to technical problems.

Animals and plants provide bionics with ideas for transferring active principles from nature to technology. This also includes biotechnology, namely using enzymes, cells and entire organisms in technical applications.

Bottom-up or top-down

A bionic product develops in several steps - either from top to bottom (top-down) or from bottom to top (bottom-up)

Bottom-up begins with the exploration of the biological basis, form, structure and function (how are the feet of a gecko structured?). Then the researchers try to understand the principles and laws (why can the gecko run on the ceiling?).

This is followed by abstraction. The scientists break away from the biological context, develop functional models and mathematical models in order to technically implement the active principles

In the end, the technical implementation follows on a laboratory scale, industrial scale and finally as a market product.

Top-down is the other way round. At the beginning there is a technical problem. For example, an existing product should get better. But how? Then the search for biological solutions begins, followed by biological foundations, abstraction and implementation.

Bionics should be innovative and creative, it is no longer just about copying nature, but about transferring fundamental effects to various fields.

Artificial bodies

In the Anglo-American region, Bionics refers to artificially produced bodies and organs that imitate or overlay a living example. Other terms for this are robotics or prosthetics.

Neurology, for example, is now experimenting with prostheses that mimic human limbs and respond to mental commands. The plan is to transfer information to the brain and thus give those affected their sense of touch.

Evolution as a role model

On the whole, the evolution of life offers the model for technology - and also in natural creativity. Evolution, according to Charles Darwin “selection through natural selection” means that the most suitable species with special skills adapt to a specific situation.

The original function of body parts and senses can change completely: the forefeet of the bats, for example, developed into wings.

Nature and technology

So nature offers an inexhaustible potential for solutions to functional problems that exceed everything that people could think of. However, it is similar to technical progress: Especially in industrial times like the digital revolution, "leaps in innovation" are required.

For example, how can machines be constructed that take samples in the gorges of the seabed and avoid obstacles? "Underwater cars" with wheels are just as little a question as submarines that cannot move between rubble and caves.

Robots offer a solution here that are modeled on lobsters, crawfish and crayfish, with gripping arms for which the octopus model stands.


A product is only considered bionic if it:
1) has a biological role model
2) abstracted from this model
3) is transferred to a technical application

Nature amazes the scientists every day anew: Almost every technical problem is a problem that has arisen or posed in evolution and for which nature has found a solution.

Bionics and evolution

Today's bionics compare their approach with the evolutionary process:

individualCreatureObject to be optimized
mutationAccidental change in genetic informationRandom change in the variable input variables
(= Object parameter)
RecombinationMix of the parental genomeNew combination of parental object parameters
selectionSelection of individuals best suited to the environmentSelection of those individuals who best meet the optimization criterion

Products optimized in this way serve to protect emissions, they conserve resources, relieve the environment and support environmental protection.

Animals and technology

Learning from animals means developing technology. Biology inspired countless engineering achievements: high-speed trains modeled after the kingfisher, in which a layer of bone dampens the head when it hits the water, or the shark skin with its emery paper structure as a model for diving suits; Trout were the prototype of the steering balloon, woodpeckers were the inspiration for the ice ax and jackhammer; Octopuses have the natural shape of cupping heads and articulated arms.

At the beginning of the culture

Bionics is a very young term, but it is at the origin of every human culture. The biosocial development of people has always meant to copy nature culturally.

Our early ancestors saw the falcon's flight, made bows and arrows, and thus copied this flight. The lance has its model in the tusks of the elephants and the horns of the antelope, the knife copies the teeth of the big cats and wolves. When people hunted animals and made clothes from their fur, they imitated the fur that gave warmth to the fellow beings.

Traditional cultures that are aware of this dependency express this model in the objects themselves: American natives carved the tips of their arrows in the form of falcon heads.

Fly like a bird

Pigeons fly just as fast as they do stamina, and with a massive body - so they have all the characteristics that a passenger plane should have. In fact, the least disruptive aircraft designed by Igo Etriel had the pigeon as a model.

The aviation pioneer took a look at the fuselage and tail unit of his artificial aircraft from city pigeons and wrote: "In the winter of 1909-1910 I designed the device (...) based on the model of a bird in a gliding position."

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci already took birds as models for his flying machines and meticulously calculated how the flight worked for individual bird species. Da Vinci grew up in Tuscany.

Leonardo's paintings, his sculptures and his engineering machines characterized him as an overwhelming thinker, even between the universal scholars of the Renaissance: he was a painter like a mechanic, an anatomist like a scientist and a natural philosopher like an architect.

But to this day, his sensual access to the world has disappeared behind the myth. Da Vinci was as creative as it was rooted in the ground. Leonardo's drawings of the rural terrain around his birthplace show that the genius of rural Tuscany remained deeply connected.

What was unusual for a Renaissance artist was that he had no early childhood training in the arts. Instead, he grew up in the cultural nature of northern Italy, and the boy spent most of his time in the natural surroundings.

Here the child studied the movements of the birds of prey and got the inspiration for his later flying machines. One of his earliest memories was a dream in which a bird of prey flew to Leonardo's face and pressed his tail against the dreamer's lips.

Such memories show that da Vinci's early roots in acquiring knowledge were neither religious in the Christian sense nor purely scientific in a modern sense, but resembled the shamanic thinking of traditional cultures that combine sensual experience and a systematic understanding of natural reality. In this way of thinking, science, art and natural philosophy are not separated, but different aspects of the same perception.

Leonardo investigated how bird wings change their shape, i.e. the hand wings spread when teeing off, collapse when serving, and he examined the structure and function of the bird feather. On this basis, he designed flapping wings for flying people. But they couldn't work because a person's body weight is much too large in proportion to the performance of their muscles.

Otto Lilienthal

Otto Lilienthal, the first successful person in the air, watched the flight of the white storks closely in his childhood. In 1889 he published his work "Bird flight as the basis of the art of flight."

The storks taught him that gliding is crucial for the flight. Storks sail long distances and save a lot of energy. The ornithological engineer concluded that it was possible to imitate this gliding flight if a human could only control the wings like a bird.

A cotton sail on a bamboo and raw rod became Lilienthal's height glider. He was the first person to reach a higher altitude in the open air than when departing. Lilienthal successfully flew 2000 times, then crashed and died.

Flying with muscles - the condor

The Andean Condor is one of the largest birds that can fly. It depends on warm air currents to get up.

Paul MacCready, an American engineer, studied condor flight as well as weather phenomena in the 1970s. His plan was to develop a flying machine that would put as much weight as possible into the air with little energy.

The condor with a weight of 13 kilograms and a wingspan of up to 3.50 m, which reached almost 6000 m in gliding flight, was the ideal study object for him.

MacCready observed that condors do not start on a cold morning and have to spend a long time on earth even after a sumptuous meal. From this he concluded that it was not the strength of the condor, but the wingspan that made it possible to carry the weight.

He designed the "Gossamer Condor" (spider thread condor), an aircraft with a wingspan of 29.25 meters and a length of 9.14 meters. The construction on aluminum tubes and special polyester film weighed only 31.75 kilograms.

The device could be driven by pedals. In 1977 a professional cyclist, Bryan Allen, started with the "Condor". Allen was the first person ever to lift off the ground on his own.

A few years later, MacCready built the "Gossamer Albatros", named after the only group of birds, some of which have an even wider span than the Condor, and Allen flew with him across the English Channel.


The gliders among the birds spread the outer feathers on the wings in the joint and thus reduce the air vortices that otherwise form on the wing - they divide the air flow into many small "streams". This is how they gain energy.

Aviation uses such "winglets", in the form of small vertical aircraft wings. They increase both the speed of fighter pilots and the energy consumption of transport machines.

The TU Berlin carried out experiments in the wind tunnel with a wing in which the winglets could be adjusted individually.

Flying like a bat

Clement Ader did not use birds, but bats as a model for his Éole aircraft. He made the first manned powered flight. However, it ended after 50 meters.

Kingfisher on rails

Birds that inspire inventors to build planes - that makes sense at first glance. But what does the kingfisher, which stands in the air like a glowing blue jewel, then dives into the water and catches fish, has to do with a high-speed train?

Eiji Nakatsu developed the Shinkansen, a fast train that connects Tokyo with Hakata. The pressure difference when the train went into a tunnel was so great that it popped loudly every time - an imposition for the passengers.

The chief engineer looked for solutions in nature and found the kingfisher, which brings about rapid changes in air resistance.

The bird's long beak reduces the shock between the weak air and strong water resistance. The Shinkasen got a "long snout", which solved the tunnel problem as well as the entry into the water surface when fishing.

The train also got faster and uses less energy.

However, this is not the only "miracle" in the kingfisher's body: its retina contains two vision pits. Outside the water, he uses only one of them, and only the second in the water. In addition, his retina contains oil droplets so that he perceives colors better and can orient himself under water.

If science understands how this "underwater system" works, it can be used to build devices to improve the underwater view of divers.

Airplane hulls in tuna design

The model for the ideal fuselage was not a bird, but a fish. The aviation technician Heinrich Hertel was looking for a pattern in nature for an aerodynamic aircraft, and the tuna gave a template.

Bonitos are particularly streamlined because the part of their body with the largest volume is not on the head but behind the gills. So the water flows past them evenly. In addition, the body does not taper on the tail gradually, but abruptly. As a result, the flow only breaks off in a small part of the body.

Other deep-sea fish and marine mammals have comparable body shapes, tarpon as well as dolphins - and they also serve as examples for aircraft engineers.

A Swiss aircraft called "Smartfish" pays homage to the marine animals that provided the model. It has a curved hull like the tuna and therefore uses less fuel than other aircraft of the same size, is easy to steer and less prone to turbulence.

However, tuna developed another adjustment to move faster. Her pectoral fins serve as rudders and brakes. When the tunas are at "full speed", they flap their fins against the body. Today, researchers are testing whether “exterior parts” of cars and fish can also be folded in at high speed to improve aerodynamics.

The steering balloon and the trout

The trout provided the template for a modern steering balloon.

Zeppelins flourished briefly in the early 20th century. The Zeppelin Hindenburg was one of the two largest airships. On May 6, 1937, the hydrogen fabric filling burned and 36 people died.

The ship burned to aluminum scrap at Lakehurst Airport in the USA in half a minute. The exact cause is still unknown, the captain believed in an assassin. However, the result was certain: Air traffic with zeppelins came to an abrupt end.

Today, however, such steering balloons could make a comeback. Weather forecasts are far more reliable today, and storms can therefore be avoided. Modern technology could also control dangerous gas mixtures.
The Swiss Institute for Research and Technology Empa examines trout as an archetype for such airships of the future.

Trout have little muscle mass. With its spindle-shaped body, it accelerates quickly. It uses flow vortex ideally and moves with minimal resistance. To do this, she bends the body and hits the tail fin in the opposite direction.

The Swiss scientists are now applying this movement to a new type of steering balloon. Electroactive polymers (EAPs) power this balloon by converting electrical energy into motion. These polymers are located where the flanks and tail of the trout lie, and where the muscles drive the wave motion in the water. The researchers recognized from the trout how the conversion of energy into motion can be increased.

Shark skin for diving suits

Just two decades ago, a smooth surface was considered ideal for moving underwater. However, the permanent swimmers of the sea, hammerhead sharks or blacktip sharks, are covered by placoid scales, which are made of the same material as shark teeth.

Their scales are corrugated and offset from each other. This reduces the friction between the water and the surface of the body, and the sharks increase their speed. The scales also prevent bacteria from spreading.

The shark skin copied swimsuits at the 2008 Olympic Games, and their wearers achieved records.

However, the hydrodynamics of the sharks are of even greater interest: Today there are ships with a “shark skin” coating that use less fuel, and “shark planes” are a matter of time.

Robot rays on the ocean floor

Manta rays fly under water. Zoologists rightly call the rays' fins wings because the fish move with them like birds that fly in the air.

Scientists wondered how stingrays get the energy for this, although the water pressure is higher than the air pressure.

The skate body solves the problem by opposing the pressure: ray fins do not give in under pressure, but bulge towards it. The German researcher Leif Knies speaks of the fin beam effect.

Rays are cartilaginous fish. They do not have bones like most fish, but their skeleton consists of cartilage. In evolution, the skeleton flattened from above, which allowed its fins to spread out on the sides.

The Berlin bionicist Rolf Bannasch designed a biomimetic robot based on the manta ray archetype. Bannasch Tema wants to explore the seabed with the robot ray. This machine would have no propellers and would therefore no longer disturb the biotope than a roaming fish.

The artificial ray could examine sub-cables, for example. But the fin beam effect can also be used in completely different areas: Festo AG in Esslingen near Stuttgart developed a bionic gripper based on the model of the fish fin.

This "FinGripper" resembles a caudal fin and consists of three "fin rays", being 90% lighter than a similar metal gripper.

The boxfish car

Today car manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to produce low-fuel cars. First of all, such vehicles have to be light and, secondly, they have to be good in the air flow, less material is cheaper, requires less resources and is less weight.

The bionics found what they were looking for in the sea: the boxfish, a resident of coral reefs, has a curiously angular shape that gives it its name. With this shape it lies extremely stable in the water, a bone armor withstands the water pressure. Its shape lies perfectly in the current. The drag coefficient (drag coefficient) is 0.06. This reduces the flow resistance.

The bone armor can be transferred to the body of a car. But the boxfish cannot be copied directly. Because a car is not only much larger, it also moves in the air, not in the water.

The result was the Mercedes-Benz bionic car. It combines maximum volume with minimal flow resistance. Bionic optimization methods reduced the weight by 30%. The fuel in its class is 20% lower than other cars.

The squid - a dream for soldiers

Fleckarn in ocher-brown in the desert, light and leafy green in the forest, gray-white in the snow - camouflaging is part of the military's craft. Soldiers can effectively camouflage themselves in a certain terrain, failing if they suddenly change surroundings. A "swamp warrior" with mud on the face and rushes on the helmet looks like a lighthouse in the night sea in the sandy desert.

An octopus would probably laugh at the soldiers' disguises if he had the consciousness to do so, because this camouflage clothing looks dull compared to its color change every second. Squids completely change the color pattern, either uniformly or with spots and stripes. This is made possible by chromatophores, pockets under the skin, filled with pigments.

These bags can expand or retract the animals by tensing muscles. The molluscs merge with any background and camouflage themselves perfectly against predators and prey.

Scientists in Massachusetts used this pattern to develop a display that creates images through variations in the top layers. The pattern activates electrical impulses - like the octopus, which relaxes its muscles, depending on the electrical signals they receive.

Military meanwhile are working on a camouflage angel to transfer the desired properties of the squid to the soldier's skin.

The color change of the octopus came into the public eye when Jurassic World filled the cinemas in 2015. An artificially created dinosaur, Indominus Rex, has squid genes in it and can therefore fuse with the environment, making it an even more deadly weapon than Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Stick like a gecko

Geckos are a large group of lizards that inhabit countless habitats in warm countries: rainforests such as deserts, mountains like beaches, outhouse in India as well as neon lights in hotels in Thailand.

Many types of geckos not only run up and down vertically on tree trunks, but also horizontally and head down on glass panes - whether damp or dry. In doing so, they release the liability in a few microseconds and hardly use any force.

The secret is in millions of hairs (setae), which in turn split into hundreds of spade-shaped leaflets (spatulae). These nestle in bumps that are only visible in the nano range. Each hair has little adhesive power. However, this becomes gigantic millions of times.

A research group led by Stanislav N. Grob has now examined hairy, nubby and mushroom-shaped structures and developed an adhesive film that achieves half the adhesive force of geckos on glass.

Artificial "gecko hairs" are dry, can be removed several times and adhere to any type of material.

American secret services are currently working on the "Stickybot", a gecko robot that climbs up disks at a rate of 4 cm per second. Stanford University developed the prototype.

Spider silk

Spider silk excites bionics like no other material: it is more flexible than rubber and more tear-resistant than steel, and extremely light. The frames and spokes of the spider webs are particularly strong, while the threads of the catch spiral are extremely stretchy.

Around 20,000 spider species build silk webs to catch prey. Our cross spider also produces stable frame threads and elastic catch spirals. The silk is a long-chain protein molecule with crystalline parts that absorb the tensile load and an amorphous matrix that ensures the elasticity.

The spiders produce the silk proteins in a spinal gland in the abdomen. You can also pass them through a spinning channel in which they salt out the proteins by ion exchange. A change in pH changes the structure, the spider then pulls with its hind legs, and the proteins become a silk thread.

Biotechnology produces artificial silk raw material and directs it with a pump into a technical spinning channel, where ions are exchanged and the silk protein solution is enriched. The solution turns into a silk thread by pulling with a roller.

Artificial spider silk can now be found in microcapsules, threads, nanospheres, hydrogels, films and foams, in medicine and industry.

Rodent knife

Knives made of steel become dull, sooner or later plastics, paper or wood rub off the steel. The knives have to be sharpened, for machines this means removing, sharpening, reinstalling and realigning. This is annoying, takes time, money and energy.

Rodents do not have this problem. Your incisors work like knives but do not blunt. They grow several millimeters every week and rub off without shrinking overall. On the contrary: rodents need hard food, otherwise the teeth become longer. The teeth are always sharp, which makes them interesting for bionics.

The incisors consist of a soft tooth inside and a hard enamel outside. Because these two materials rub off to different extents, the teeth remain sharp because the soft dentin shrinks and the hard enamel remains.

The bionic abstraction of the principle: self-sharpening knives should therefore consist of two materials with different hardness. Knives like this exist: their core is made of steel, which wears out faster than the outer ceramic layer, and the hard layer remains as a cut edge. These knives last longer than the commercial products and they are always sharp.

The polar bear and termite house

Some termites use the warmth of the sun and metabolism to ventilate their structures. The air flows through a tube system upwards and below the surface downwards. This is made possible by a heat gradient between the warm top of the building and the cool underground areas. Carbon dioxide diffuses out through the porous building material, oxygen diffuses into it.

In polar bears, white hair conducts light and warmth onto dark skin. There they are absorbed. Together with closed air spaces in the bear skin, the animal gains warmth.

In 1996, W. Nachtigall and G. Rummel designed a low-energy house that combines the passive pore ventilation of the termites with the transparent thermal insulation of the polar bear. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

People, companies and universities that work with bionics(Selection):

Adapted Technology Group
technical University of Vienna

INPRO innovation company for advanced production systems
in the automotive industry mbH

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)

Otto Lilienthal Museum

University of Bayreuth, Chair for Biomaterials

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch


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Video: How Bionic Limbs Are Changing Lives. VICE on HBO (December 2021).