Students and professors in research and development teams in the United States are setting the standard for nature-inspired engineering designs. Using nature as an influence for design, and using engineering design to better understand nature, may produce fruitful outcomes for engineering and nature alike.

A mechanical engineering team at the University of Illinois is using butterflies and snake scales as a blueprint for creating a new surface that will be used for ‘fluid and light manipulation’.



The team says the surface could service the scientific and engineering communities. In their paper, entitled ‘Magnetically Responsive Elastomer-Silicon Hybrid Surfaces for Fluid Light Manipulation’, they write:

“Stimuli-responsive surfaces with tunable fluidic and optical properties utilizing switchable surface topography are of significant interest for both scientific and engineering research.”

The engineers say that with their surface as a base, materials can be laid atop it. They are nanostructures that copy, to some extent, the subtlety of butterfly and snake scales. The engineers designed what are called ‘ferromagnetic micropillars’ above a flexible bottom later.

Thereby, the surface can be used for a plethora of applications including: ‘tunable wetting, droplet manipulation, tunable optical transmissions, and structural correlation’.

It all sounds very complex, but with tunable optical transmissions, virtual blinds could be designed, for example. Imagine booking into a hotel room and darkening the room without physically having to pull down the blinds. The window itself would be fitted with the light manipulating technology utilizing the scale-like nanostructured surface.

Other applications include biomedical engineering applications, implantation into photovoltaic arrays and more. Seok Kim, the assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said that he wanted to ‘emulate’ designs found in nature.

Helping nature out

At the University of Colorado Boulder an aerospace engineering team has put their energy into figuring out how to study animals more closely. Their senior design project saw them designing technology for the preservation of nature.

Colorardo Boulder Project Team
Source: University of Colorado Boulder

They have designed a drone that can get the closest to sperm whales than any other apparatus before.

Previously, marine biologists have reportedly been limited to binoculars and hydrophones. What the biologists want to do is voyeuristically listen in on sperm whale communications to decipher the ‘language’ sperm whales are using. The project’s name is - whimsically - SHAMU (Search and Help Aquatic Mammals UAS), which was also the name of a killer whale that was held at SeaWorld in San Diego in the United States.

The team is hoping the unmanned aerial vehicle will contribute to lessening the number of sperm whale deaths per year. The university’s online publication asserts that pollution and ‘collisions with ships’ lead to 1,000 sperm whale deaths annually. With more data generated, the engineers are hoping it could give marine biologists something to work with.

Lauren McIntire, the head of safety on the project said:

“One of the main reasons most of us joined the project is the desire to use engineering to better the world. In aerospace there’s a focus on defense or commercial projects, but SHAMU is about conversation and helping all life on earth.”


Works Cited

“Pushing Boundaries: To Save the Whales, Engineering Students Take to the Skies.” CU Boulder Today, 14 Feb. 2018,

Yang, Zining, et al. “Magnetically Responsive Elastomer–Silicon Hybrid Surfaces for Fluid and Light Manipulation.” Small, 24 Nov. 2017,