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What does the future hold for nature inspired research?

Biomimetics is a research field that is achieving particular prominence through an explosion of new discoveries in biology and engineering. The field concerns novel technologies developed through the transfer of function from biological systems. Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of important discoveries within the field of biomimetics. The societal and economic impacts expected to emerge from these advances will have future benefits for our health and quality-of-life, due to advances in information and computation technologies, robotics, brain–machine interfacing and nanotechnology applied to life sciences.

In 2013, Dr Nathan Lepora, Professor Paul Verschure and Professor Tony Prescott investigated the impact of biomimetics within engineering and related sciences, analysing a comprehensive database of publications on biomimetics.

In particular, their study focused on four main questions.

● Where is biomimetic research published?

● How rapidly is the subject of biomimetics expanding?

● What subjects does biomimetics encompass?

● Are there research communities within biomimetics?

Where is biomimetic research published?

From a total of nearly 18,000 biomimetic publications, about 57% were published in journals and 43% in conference proceedings. Overall, the top five journals were: Biomaterials (published by Elsevier), Bioinspiration and Biomimetics (IOP), Journal of Biomedical Materials Research A (Wiley), Langmuir (ACS) and Acta Biomateriala (Elsevier). The top six conferences were: ROBIO, SPIE, ICAL, EMBC, ICRA and IROS. Of these, ROBIO dominated the publication numbers, comprising more than one-third of the conference output.

How rapidly is the subject of biomimetics expanding?

From a relatively small field of tens of papers in the mid-1990s, biomimetics has exponentially expanded thereafter to now reach nearly 3000 papers per year.

Growth of biomimetic research A bar chart showing biomimetic publications by year. The y-axis represents publications by year, ranging from 0 to 2,800. The x-axis represents the years 1995 to 2011. Each bar on the chart is divided into two parts, a black bar indicating the proportion of publications that are journal papers and a white bar indicating the proportion in books and conferences. The number of papers in 1995 is very low, sitting at approximately 100, the majority of which are journal papers. These numbers of papers remain very similar, under 200, until 2001. The number of books/conference publications raises slightly during htis period. After 2001 numbers of publications begin increasing steeply until 2008 where they peak at just over 2,400 in total, or 1,200 journal papers and 1,200 books and conference publications. Numbers stabilise in 2009 and 2010, before rising to over 2,800 in 2011, or just over 1,600 journal articles and 1,200 books and conference publications. The bar chart plots the number of papers published each year in biomimetics starting from 1995. The black bars indicate the proportion of journal papers and the white bars indicate the proportion in books and conferences.

The subject area has doubled in size every 2–3 years, far outstripping the modest expansion of about 6% per year for science in general (Larsen and von Ins 2010).

Based on this finding, there is a boom in bioinspired research, with leading discoveries in biomimetics laying the foundations for large areas of present and future research. As these developments in robotics and engineering are translated into technology, they have the potential for significant societal and economic impacts. This growth of technological transfer is also seen in the rapid rise of patents granted in biomimetics (Bonser 2006, Bonser and Vincent 2007), indicating that a rapid development of new technologies derived from biological models is taking place.

What subjects does biomimetics encompass?

The results of this analysis are displayed in a word cloud of frequent terms in biomimetic research.

Popular topics in biomimetics The word cloud shows the popularity of terms occurring in the titles of papers on biomimetic research. The word size is proportional to the frequency of word occurrence. The most popular words are 'biomimetic', 'robot', 'control', 'model' and 'design'. The word cloud shows the popularity of terms occurring in the titles of papers on biomimetic research. The word size is proportional to the frequency of word occurrence.

Word clouds, and data clouds more generally, are a visual depiction of the frequency of words within a larger set obtained by scaling the font size of each word within the cloud by its frequency of occurrence

As expected, the word biomimetic is the most popular word. Then, perhaps more revealingly, other leading terms are ‘robot’ and ‘control’, which suggests that a main thrust of biomimetic research is to take inspiration from how animals control their bodies and sensory systems for application to robotics.

Concepts from control engineering and artificial intelligence are also represented, including model, network, algorithm, simulation, learning, adaptive and optimization. These subject areas are consistent with biomimetics being published in robotics and engineering journals and conferences, such as the journal IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man and Cybernetics and the conferences ROBIO, IROS and ICRA.

Are there distinct research communities within biomimetics?

This question was addressed with techniques from network theory applied to a graph of frequent biomimetic topics linked given by common pairings within the titles of papers. Terms that are strongly connected can then be pulled together on the graph, while disparate topics are pushed apart.

Connectedness of popular terms in biomimetics Connectedness of popular terms in biomimetics. Two words in the word cloud in figure 5 are considered connected if they co-occur within the same titles, with the co-occurrence frequency giving the connection strength. A Force Atlas algorithm was applied to these node words and connection strengths, which pulls together the connected terms. The graph is colored according to a modularity analysis, which finds communities within the connected network, where a community is defined to be a group of nodes that have denser intra-connections but sparser connections with other communities. Two words in the word cloud in figure 5 are considered connected if they co-occur within the same titles, with the co-occurrence frequency giving the connection strength. A Force Atlas algorithm was applied to these node words and connection strengths, which pulls together the connected terms. The graph is colored according to a modularity analysis, which finds communities within the connected network, where a community is defined to be a group of nodes that have denser intra-connections but sparser connections with other communities.

Applying a modularity analysis to this network showed that the field of biomimetics was well connected and may thus be considered a single discipline. Underlying this inter-connectivity was a community structure into five identifiable research themes: robotics and control (blue), ethology-based robotics (black), biomimetic actuators (yellow), biomaterials science (red) and structural bioengineering (green).

Conclusions

Biomimetics is a research field that is achieving particular prominence through a wide variety of new discoveries in biology and engineering.

There has been a rapid expansion of publications on biomimetics from the mid-1990s to present day, doubling every 2–3 years to now reach a mature field of nearly 3000 papers per year. Furthermore, the field is still expanding, and so more growth can be expected. There are a number of distinct themes into which biomimetics can be partitioned; robotics and control, ethology-based robotics, biomimetic actuators, and biomaterials science and structural bioengineering. Taken together, these findings indicate that biomimetics is becoming a dominant paradigm for robotics, materials science and other technological disciplines, with the potential for significant scientific, societal and economic impact over this decade and into the future.

Adapted from: Lepora, N. F., Verschure, P., and Prescott, T. J. (2013) The state of the art in biomimetics. Bioinspiration & Biomimetics, 8(1). © IOP Publishing. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

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