Nature is being used as a model for new technical developments in the field of bionics. Nature’s huge potential as a source of inspiration is systematically explored with the “BioPat” search tool. Developers at the Fraunhofer IAO combine their BioPat software with an analysis to detect bionics potential which is aimed at speeding the passage of interesting natural phenomena into engineering departments.
Using nature as a model in the search for solutions to technical challenges is far from being a new idea that only came into being when the term bionics was first used in the 1960s. Many of Leonardo Da Vinci's inventions were based on the principles of zoology and botany. His design for a visionary flying machine, based on his investigations into the construction and function of birds' wings, is one of the most spectacular examples of his ingenuity which still has the capacity to impress 600 years after his death.
In the modern technological world, investigators are always looking for the small details that can lead to practical, quick and cost efficient solutions in all areas of engineering. This is where innovative computer-assisted applications such as BioPat come in, as they can be used to scan the huge amount of state-of-the-art knowledge for examples of different structures and processes in nature. "The tool we have developed helps us save a great deal of time in the search for a suitable solution to a technical problem," said industrial engineer Truong Le highlighting the benefit of BioPat. Truong Le developed BioPat in collaboration with a colleague and mechanical engineer, Frieder Schnabel, and a computer linguistics expert. The three-person team is based in the Technology and Innovation Management division of the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO in Stuttgart.
On behalf of industrial partners and research groups of the Fraunhofer Society, the experts from the Technology and Innovation Management division develop solutions for particularly difficult technical problems. “It had proved impossible to solve some of the very difficult questions that arose with the technical know-how we had and so we asked ourselves whether nature could provide the answers, and, if so, which answers could it provide. We found that searching through biological databases is a very time-consuming process, in particular since we were not bio-world experts,” said Le, highlighting that a particular problem that led to erroneous search results was the different terminology used in engineering and biology. Le cites a search carried out by the team in English databases: “In technology, the word “preserve” is used in the sense of “to keep fresh”, “to maintain”; we found that in the field of biology the word “cultivate” was used instead of “preserve”.
The team found that terms used in biology and technology to describe the same things needed some translation. Le and his team started developing a kind of translation programme that enabled an efficient search for solutions both in technical and in scientific information resources. “We developed a technology - biology dictionary that is constantly being further developed,” said Le. At present, the dictionary is optimised for databases to which the Fraunhofer Society subscribes but has also been set up so that it can be adapted to other websites.
The BioPat concept is derived from computer linguistics. “It is a semantic technology that we developed in-house for patent searches where we had identified similar problems, in this case with legal terms,” said Le. The new software has been designed to semi-automatically determine word connections and speed up searches. This led to the BioPat application and its dictionary and search engine that were developed by the IAO team. The integrated clustering process is based on open source algorithms. “We are able to use these algorithms to cluster documents. A group or cluster can consist of biological and technical texts such as patent specifications,” said Le explaining the advantages of BioPat.
The IAO team did not just leave it at the development of the software, but they also expanded their service offer to the analysis of bionics potential, which comprises problem analyses, a search of the scientific knowledge pool for suitable phenomena and support in transforming biological knowledge into technical solutions. "We analyse the search results and prepare them so that they can be directly used for new technical concepts," explains Le highlighting the benefit of the analyses: "Even if the problem is a well-known one, we still need to think carefully about the technological search teams that are going to be used. We extract only the appropriate terms from a large pool of possible terms, hence reducing the complexity of the problem itself - this is part of the service we offer."
The IAO team has been offering BioPat and the bionics potential analysis to its partners and has proven the effectiveness of the new concept in several projects for around one year now. One example is the recycling of composite plates that are used in the structural-facings sector, amongst other areas. Aluminium-coated polymer plates are very thin, but very robust, which is why they are used to a growing extent in the building and construction industry. However, smart recycling solutions have so far not been available. "The materials were separated mechanically in a time-consuming process involving high temperatures," explains Le who, together with his colleagues, found the solution to the problem by using bananas as a model. "Bananas are soft inside and have a hard shell which can be peeled off." The idea of using the principle of peeling for separating materials was the basis for further development.
“The banana model is now hidden deep in our tool where it can no longer be recognised, but bananas were nevertheless the starting point for an innovative solution. It is important to look at a problem from a different perspective,” highlighted Le. His team pursues an untypical bionic approach that does not just revolve around finding solutions in biology. “We look for solutions in both worlds before we choose the best one,” confirmed Schnabel.
In the near future, the team will extend BioPat by adding an expert identification system that will add to the tool’s functionality. When the search engine comes up with suitable phenomena it will also provide the names of appropriate bionics experts, their contact data and additional key information. An updated version of BioPat will be presented in March 2010. For the time being, the Fraunhofer team does not envisage setting up a company based on this technology, however it does not completely exclude the possibility. “We are now going to concentrate on optimising the quality of our tool,” said Le defining their short-term objective.
Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO