10 technologies stolen from nature

In films, advanced technologies are inspired by space aliens or delivered by time travellers - but in real life, scientists are more likely to get their inspiration from the birds and the bees. Here are ten technologies that should have Mother Nature calling her lawyers.

1. Velcro

The magical sticky stuff was invented in 1941 by Swiss engineer George de Mestral, who'd been out hunting with his dog. Fascinated by the way burdock seeds stuck to his dog's fur, de Mestral ignored the obvious explanation - that he had a really sticky dog - and put them under a microscope. He discovered that each seed was covered in hundreds of tiny hooks, and Velcro was born.

2. Exoskeletons

In Aliens, Sigourney Weaver used an exoskeleton to bash a giant insect monster - which is ironic, because insects invented the exoskeleton in the first place, about 550 million years ago. By strapping one onto a mere person, exoskeletons turn even the humblest human into a superhero.

3. NASA's Scorpion Robot

You'll never guess what inspired this one. NASA has been testing all kinds of robots for space exploration, including Professor Frank Kirchner's dog-sized scorpion bot. The scorpion's ideal for rough terrain: unlike wheeled or tracked robots it doesn't get stuck in sand, and it can cross even the roughest terrain.

4. Directional hearing aids

Most flies don't have ears, but Ormia ochracea does - and its lugs are really rather clever. It's evolved super-sensitive hearing that doesn't require a giant head, and it's inspired research into tiny hearing aids and directional microphones.

5. Morphing wings

There's more to flying than having wings: by mimicking the effects of muscles and feathers to transform the shape and drag of wings during flight, and in some cases directly copying swifts' wings, researchers believe they can improve the efficiency, safety, economy and noise of aircraft.

6. The Bionic Car

In 2005, Mercedes admitted to an unlikely source of inspiration: a fish. Ostracion Cubicus, better known as the boxfish, is exceptionally strong, very aerodynamic and gets fantastic MPG - so Mercedes took a good look and built a car along similar principles. Although the concept has yet to turn into a production model, it was one of this year's star attractions at the New York Museum of Modern Art.


Organic Light-Emitting Diodes use the same phenomenon as fireflies and weird undersea creatures: electroluminescence. Some organic compounds glow when you pass an electric current through them, and OLED takes that idea and turns it into tellies.

8. Spider-man gloves

Spider-man got his wall-crawling powers from a frankly unlikely radioactive spider bite, but real-world Spideys could soon be thanking geckos. A team at the University of California has developed "Gecko tape", an incredibly adhesive material that mimics the lizards' magic feet, and they reckon Spider-man climbing gloves are just a few years away.

9. Scary Robot Fish

Although very much a work in progress, the AquaJelly promises autonomous robot jellyfish that swim in shoals, communicating via light, doing, er, something. There's another one that flies. Are we wrong to be spooked by this?

10. Self-cleaning paint

Inspired by the water-repellent properties of the lotus leaf, Sto AG's self-cleaning paint sheds water when it rains, essentially turning every downpour into a power shower that keeps surfaces sparkly clean. All we need now is self-mowing grass.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now and her next book, about pop music, is out in 2025. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind.