Four Student-Designed, Nature-Inspired Transportation Solutions

Craft & Design Education Science
Four Student-Designed, Nature-Inspired Transportation Solutions
Millipede, inspiration for Mocan human-powered vehicle. Photo by Billy Smith.
A millipede, inspiration for the Mocan human-powered vehicle. Photo by Billy Smith.

Snakes, millipedes, algae, bioluminescent organisms, peacocks, rodents, and warty comb jellies helped make three teams of students winners in the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute’s third global Biomimicry Student Design Challenge. By looking at their projects, you can get a sense of how nature can inspire innovative solutions to some local and global challenges.

Student teams from 22 countries on 6 continents worked on the latest challenge starting in Fall 2013. Previous challenges were about energy efficiency and water access and management. This year’s challenge asked students to examine how nature facilitates effective, efficient transportation.hownature_frog_make02

Winners of the challenge not only had to come up with a solution that would make a positive impact at the local or global level, they also had to demonstrate that they understood the biomimicry process taught through the materials provided as part of the challenge and correctly applied the lessons learned from their biological models. The judges chose the three winners and one honorable mention as the best among the 102 designs submitted.

Two teams tied for first, and took on very different challenges. Team Dédale from Quebec, Canada, addressed a huge, global challenge: The release of ballast water in large ships has caused the movement and introduction of new species of aquatic organisms around the world, to the detriment of local ecosystems. The team found major drawbacks to current solutions and wanted to think about the challenge by reversing the design paradigm. They realized that instead of bringing in water when the cargo hold is empty, they could instead bring in air when it is full to provide the same buoyancy and stability. They picked this up from fish bladders that provide buoyancy, cuttlefish bones that compartmentalize air, and brown algae that have structure that provides durability.

PowerPoint Presentation
Team Dédale’s Air Ballast Biomimetic Cargo Ship and its inspiring organisms.

Another team also took on the ballast water issue and received an honorable mention. Team Harvey Mudd 2 from California proposed using waste heat from the engines to heat up ballast water to kill organisms, using the counter-current heat exchange of organisms like whales and jackrabbits, non-stick piping inspired by shark skin, and self-cleaning inspired by baleen whales.

The other first place winner, team Adan from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, designed the Mocan, a replacement for the tricycle that is currently widely used in their area for moving both people and goods. They wanted to improve the safety and functionality of human-product_Mocan_croppedpowered vehicles to encourage less use of motorized ones. Their video gives a good overview to their design and process and how they incorporated locomotion strategies of the millipede and snake. Watch to the end to see how they also incorporated the chicken into their design; the video of the chicken makes me chuckle every time.

The third place team, Industrial Mimicry from California, also wanted to improve human-powered transportation — the bicycle. In their location of Long Beach, cyclists don’t feel safe, which limits the use of bicycles for daily transportation. Their biggest challenges were visibility, communicating intentions such as turning, and having adequate space around them or what the team called “lane space.” With those challenges in mind, they started searching for natural models and discovered that whiskers provided the inspiration they needed. But they didn’t stop there, moving on to study how organisms like peacocks, bioluminescent organisms, and comb jellies signal and make themselves visible.


In Industrial Mimicry’s video, the team says, “Each discovery leads to another, opening up new opportunities for our design.” This is what I like to hear when I teach biomimicry. Biomimicry isn’t just a process of learning from nature, making a design, and then moving on. It’s more iterative and long-term than that. It’s looking for opportunities to improve on what you’ve done. What we’ve found is that once you start learning from nature, you just can’t stop. You start seeing fascinating natural models everywhere and wanting to learn more.

If you want to learn more about the many organisms all of the students looked to for inspiration and their final designs, visit the gallery to see photos, a summary of their project, and short videos.

5 thoughts on “Four Student-Designed, Nature-Inspired Transportation Solutions

  1. selombanybah says:

    Reblogged this on Kossi Selom Banybah and commented:
    Good Initiative :)

  2. Will Bain says:

    There’s a crucial piece of information missing from the article: Are these teams made up of elementary school kids, high school students, undergrads, or graduate students?

    1. Ali says:

      Hi, Will. These are undergrad and graduate students. You can learn more about the winners here:

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Sherry Ritter

Sherry Ritter is a biologist, writer, and educator living in Montana. Before getting involved with biomimicry, she was a wildlife ecologist with state wildlife agencies in Wyoming and Idaho, and worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Biomimicry fits her life-long interest in organisms’ adaptations to survive.

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