From Velcro to high-speed trains: 5 examples of technology inspired by nature | eco@africa | DW | 08.06.2018
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From Velcro to high-speed trains: 5 examples of technology inspired by nature

What do wasps have to do with brain surgery? What can architecture learn from termites? We look at five examples of technology that found their designs in nature.


In the age of smartphones, Velcro might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of technology. Yet an invention doesn't need to be complicated to have big impact.  

DW eco@africa - Velcro ( / Danlinwood)

The story of Velcro's creation begins with a walk in the park.

In 1941, Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral was walking with his dog in the woods when he returned he spotted burdock seeds clinging to his coat and to the hair of his pet.

The burdock has long hooked seeds — similar to miniature walking sticks — shaped in such a way to help them spread by catching on to passing creatures.

Mestral placed the seeds under a microscope and used their shape as inspiration for the hook and fastener tech of the product we all know today.


The brightly colored Kingfisher birds are recognizable for their long, pointed bills. These bills come in particularly handy for hunting and eating fish — enabling the bird to dive precisely and with minimal splash into the water to catch its prey.

In the 1990s, the bills became the unlikely source of inspiration for a group of Japanese engineers facing a technical challenge.

The country's trains were moving at such a speed that when they left tunnels they were creating an abrasive booming sound. 

Reportedly one of the engineers was also a bird lover and wondered whether the shape of the kingfisher's bill might hold the answer.

The elongated 'nose' of the Japanese bullet train was the outcome of this marriage of nature and tech. The design not only solved the noise problem but made the vehicle more aerodynamic.

Termite mounds

Inside termite mounds — some of which can stretch many meters into the air — a sophisticated architecture can be found. Termites have become masters of temperature control, constructing remarkable labyrinths of heating and cooling vents open and close at different points over the day. This enables the termites to use circulating air to maintain a steady internal air temperature.  

This sophisticated climate-responsive structure has inspired modern buildings, such as the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe.

The building, designed by architect Mick Pearce, is largely made from concrete and has no conventional air conditioning or heating system. Instead the temperature is controlled through passive cooling, a design approach similar to the termite mounds that significantly reduces energy consumption.  

Wood wasps

The female wood wasp could help to transform to way brain surgery is carried out. The insect has a bendable yet tough needle-like ovipositor that it uses to bore holes into wood where it then lays its eggs. 

This has become the source of inspiration for a new project called Sting, led by Rodriguez y Baena and his team at London Imperial College.

As part of the project, the doctor is developing a flexible robotic needle capable of reaching deeper parts of the brain, while minimizing damage to healthy brain tissue. 

Namib desert beetle

Water scarcity is a growing global issue. Could the humble Namib desert beetle help tackle the problem? 

The Namib beetle, native to southern Africa, is equipped to survive in arid environments and has evolved means to collect water literally out of thin air.

Research has found that the physical arrangement and location of the bumps on the beetle's back crucially allows it to draw all the water it needs from the foggy winds of its desert habitat.

According to a study by professors at Harvard University the particular geometry of the bumps on creature's shell facilitates efficient condensation.

These shells are providing inspiration for new designs for materials that can collect and transport greater volumes of water more efficiently than other surfaces.