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Building Beasts Through Biomimicry

Inspired by a fish

Right from the beginning of automotive history, car makers have named their creations after animals.  The reasoning behind this is simple: by giving the vehicle the name of a creature that’s fast, powerful, graceful or dangerous, the user will, at least subconsciously, feel that the vehicle shares those attributes.  We want our cars to have the sheer speed of the peregrine falcon (top speed in a stoop = over 300 km/h, which is faster than what your common or garden Aussie Ford Falcon can do) or the aggression of a bighorn ram (Dodge) or the agility and elegance of a jaguar.

However, what if the makers could take things a little further and actually give a car some of the actual attributes of a swift, agile animal? Not things like actual predatory behaviour, of course; otherwise, we’d see Nissan Bluebirds eating Alfa Romeo Spyders, Jaguars and Porsche Caymans competing to devour Isuzu Bighorns, and Hyundai Tiburon (that’s Spanish for shark) giving Corvette Stingrays serious grief.  However, what if we could find out what it is that gives speedy creatures like the blue marlin and the peregrine falcon their seriously low drag coefficients so we can get better and more efficient speedy vehicles?

This is where the concept of biomimicry comes in.  Biomimicry is the design concept that looks to the natural world to get ideas and inspiration for more than just names and colours.

The classic example of biomimicry in the automotive world comes from McLaren supercars and involves one of the designers being inspired by a stuffed fish.  This stuffed fish wasn’t your ordinary trout trophy but a sailfish, which is one of the fastest fish in the sea.  The designer was so struck with this sailfish that he studied it to find out some of the features that made it so fast and if it would be possible to apply these to the supercar.

Two features from the sailfish made it into the design of the McLaren P1.  The first was the scales.  On the fish, the scales create vortices that push a bubble of air around the fish, meaning that it’s slipping through less dense air rather than water so it can go faster.  In the car –which is already going through air – the features of the scales that generate these little vortices were applied to the engine to increase the flow of air for keeping things cool and for adding extra oomph. And it worked: the sailfish scale inspired design increased airflow by 17%.  The other design was the curve of the fish’s body just before the tail fin, which straightens out air and water pockets to improve aerodynamics; it works just as well on the hypercar, minus the water, of course.

Nissan has also got a bit fishy, although they were considering safety features instead.  The designers were looking at how schools of fish act.  If you, like me, have watched one of those nature documentaries on marine life, you’ve probably seen footage of those huge schools of fish that seem to have the synchronized swimming thing down to perfection.  They stop, start, swirl and turn almost simultaneously – and they never seem to collide with each other.  The team at Nissan asked how this was possible.  It turned out that each fish monitors its position relative to the fish in front of it, and makes adjustments so it can keep the right following distance.  This idea was what led to the development of forward collision detection and autonomous braking systems, which is now a very common active safety feature on a lot of new cars and not just Nissans, either.

However, care is always needed when attempting to mimic the natural world, as it can be very easy to overlook the big picture.  Mercedes Benz famously attempted to look to nature for inspiration when developing a very stable car – the Bionic concept car.  The idea seemed fantastic: the boxfish may look weird but it’s extremely stable and can’t tip over, no matter how turbulent the water is, but it’s still got low drag.  Mercedes thought this was great and set about putting together a concept car based on the shape of the fish.

However, one thing the Mercedes design team forgot to think about was the fact that although the boxfish was stable but was still able to turn around easily, it wasn’t quite as slick and fast as most other tropical fish.  The aerodynamics (or, more accurately, hydrodynamics) that stop it from going belly-up in the roughest of seas also make turning very hard.  Boxfish have two other design features in place to help them survive the jungle of the coral reef that the Mercedes Benz doesn’t have.  The first makes up for the lack of manoeuvrability by having one heck of a defence system: it puts off minute amounts of poison into the water around it to deter predators – which is why it’s bright yellow to send the message Toxic: Do Not Eat.  The second feature is the way it moves its fins, which is what gives it the turning ability as well as adding to the stability.  Just in case you haven’t noticed, cars don’t have fins and definitely don’t use them for turning.  This explains why the much-hyped Mercedes boxfish car didn’t get beyond concept stage.

Nevertheless, biomimicry is still a very hot topic in the world of design in general, as we look for ways to make cars safer and more efficient.  Maybe it’s time to insist that all automotive designers need to have tropical fish tanks in their offices.

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