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Bioinspired sonar expert seeks to bridge natural history and engineering

May 10, 2016

Composite image from CT scans of Micronycteris megalotis, or "little big-eared bat."

digital image of bat skeleton with superimposed flesh
Rolf Mueller, associate professor of mechanical engineering, used these scans of Micronycteris megalotis, a bat in the Smithsonian's collection, in his research on bioinspired sonar. Composite image by Dane Webster.

When engineers need to design an amphibious robot, an indestructible fiber, or a wind turbine blade that slices quietly through the air, they increasingly turn to biology for inspiration. But they don’t always have access to the actual biological structures or the expertise to analyze them.

Museums do. If engineers knew about those collections and could access them more easily, it would dramatically speed up the pace of innovation, said Rolf Mueller, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering.

Mueller leads a workshop this week at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, entitled “Biological collections as a resource for technical innovation,” to explore how engineers and museums can work together to bring more biology into bioinspiration.

The Smithsonian’s collection alone numbers more than 128 million specimens. That vast cache of biodiversity holds the results of billions of years of field tests of sensory structures, functional materials, and locomotion systems.

“If one could get that knowledge out, I think it would really dwarf the database of all human engineering knowledge,” Mueller said.

Mueller uses the Smithsonian’s collections in his research on bioinspired sonar, studying the relationship between bats’ facial structures and their remarkable echolocation abilities.

According to Mueller, engineers don’t always know what museum resources might be available and can’t necessarily access then. And extracting useful information isn’t straightforward, especially for scientists not used to dealing with biological specimens.

“You’re in a room filled with drawers, covered in scientific names, and you stand there, and now what?” he said. 

Mueller is the director of the Center for Bioinspired Science and Technology, which is supported in part by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. He designed the workshop, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, to explore what information might be useful to engineers, how to extract as much of it as possible without damaging the specimen,  and how to turn that raw data into engineering insight.

For example, Mueller said, physical data obtained from the specimens could be merged with other resources, including scientific literature and even YouTube, to yield a digital knowledge base that could be mined with technologies similar to Watson, the Jeopardy-playing computer.

Such a database could help an engineer with a specific question — say, how to design a flying robot with minimal air drag — find the best biological model system, a process that can often be haphazard, Mueller said.

“If I’m an engineer and I have a problem that I need to solve, I see some animal on the Discovery Channel, and I think, ‘that’s it!’” he said. “But maybe there’s something out there that would have been a better model, and I just missed it. Effort is wasted because the model system is not as good as it could have been.”

In fact, many bioinspired technologies tend to reference the same handful of species: geckos, spiders, butterflies. Facilitating engineers’ access to museums’ extensive collections would expand the pool of potential solutions to technical problems.

This week's workshop includes museum curators, engineers who work in bioinspiration, data scientists, representatives from IBM, 13 Virginia Tech faculty, and economists, who can offer insight on the potential commercial value of the data hidden in museums’ specimens and how much accelerating bioinspired innovation might boost the economy.

Representatives from the National Science Foundation and other Washington-area government agencies and research labs are also in attendance.

“There are a lot of engineers out there who are trying to do bioinspiration but who have limited access to the biology,” Mueller said. “It’s a whole different world.” 

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