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Birds, Bees and Creative Solutions

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 29, 2011

What did Japanese transportation engineers learn from brightly colored Kingfisher birds?

The Japanese bullet trains, called the Shinkansen, carry passengers efficiently all over the country, at speeds greater than 200 miles per hour. But they were causing noise pollution. A FastCompany story, "Bird Beak on Trains and Bee Eyes on Cars: Biomimicry in Transportation" explains the problem. As the snub-nosed train passed through tunnels, pressure built at the front end, causing a sonic boom at the train's exit. Engineers noticed the kingfisher has a long beak that tapers from stem to tip, allowing for smooth dives into water. When they gave the train a similar nose and made some subtle changes to the power supply, they eliminated the booms, increased speed by 20 miles an hour, and used 15 percent less energy.

The story describes other biomimicry successes. In 2008, Nissan designed a small robotic car with a crash avoidance system based on the bees' ability to survey a full 300 degrees surrounding it because of its compound eyes. And of course, biomimicry enthusiasts love ants. Industrial designer Bryan Lee designed A.N.T. (Aid Necessities Transporter) on the basis of the ant's perseverance in transporting food and carrying as much as 50 times its own weight. The ant-inspired vehicles are designed for use in natural and man-made disasters, where people need rescue in difficult terrain and emergency food and housing. Ants have also helped computer scientists discover the most efficient vehicle routes for delivering everything from packages to gasoline. Ants leaving the hive to forage for food leave chemical signals in their path. Ant majorities will choose the most direct routes from hive to food, strengthening the signals along the way, and the signals left on the inefficient routes will fade away.

The slime mold also intrigues the mathematically imaginative. When Japanese researchers put a single-celled slime mold on a surface surrounded by oat flakes representing the locations of the country's high speed rail stations, the mold reached each spot in the most efficient way, actually approximating the existing rail network. It did the same thing when topographical obstacles were put in its way. Scientists think the mold may inspire mathematical models that can make future transportation networks even more efficient. Read the FastCompany story here.

Japanese and German transportation experts are also experimenting with new train technology called magnetic levitation, or Maglev. The main difference between a conventional train and a Maglev train is that the Maglev doesn't have afuel-fed engine that pulls the train along steel tracks. The train is propelled instead by a magnetic field created by electrified coils in track and guideway walls.

Happy New Year! Another FastCompany story offers some provocative New Year's Resolutions. One, for instance, is "Wake Up Stupid Every Day." Be open to new ideas-don't assume you already know them.

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