Cities have long been striving to address social and economic challenges through technology. Smart cities came to existence with the same intention. But what if the answers to our problems are hidden in the trees, plants, and insects around us?
At first, the question may sound bewildering. However, architects around the world are already creating sustainable building designs by taking inspiration from nature. Besides, many bio-inspired scientists have been learning from nature to develop solutions that tackle real-world problems.
They’ve cracked incredible strategies of nature and its beings. We find out about this more in detail ahead.
Ant-Inspired Clean Air Technology
Researchers of Aston University in Birmingham have developed software to optimise fleet routes around busy cities. It will help commercial vehicle fleets running in cities to contribute to reducing emissions and cleaner air.
The research team used “meta-heuristic” technique that imitates how ant colonies solve problems and improve their behaviours. For instance, each ant keeps a record of the best solution it has found alone. Then it passes this knowledge to other ants, as per the researchers.
Eventually, this new knowledge is spreading throughout the colony and updates its know-how library. In a way, this is relatable to computer algorithms. Using this ant behaviour, researchers developed ‘smarter’ ant algorithms by decreasing the number of decisions they make. So that it can solve citywide fleet routing problems.
Algorithms based on the foraging habits of ants have long been used to resolve vehicle routing problems. But now we have discovered how to scale these up to citywide fleets operating over several weeks in less time. This is as per Dr Darren Chitty, lead researcher, Aston University. Simply put, users can put the software on their laptop and solve fleet optimisation problems within a fair timeframe.
The technology was tested on numerous Birmingham companies that run fleets to help them decrease road usage. For example, a company performing external maintenance tasks at a customer’s property spends a significant part of the day crisscrossing the city’s road network. This contributes to high levels of emissions that add to air pollution and congestion.
Researchers testing results with the maintenance company involved up to 45 vehicles and 437 customer jobs in the six weeks. As per Aston University, 50% of more savings were seen compared to the company’s original time spent on the road.
The team reduced CO2 emission by 4.25 kg per van per day. And mitigated more harmful emissions such as nitrous oxide by 98 gm per van per day. The technology helped the company make equal savings in their fuel costs, raise profit margins while cutting emissions by half.
As the project is funded for the next two years the team will continue approaching other companies for the testing.
Professor Jas Pal Badyal FRS, Durham University discussed bio-inspired approaches at the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos, Switzerland 2020.
Addressing Air Conditioning
One of the undergraduate students at Durham University developed a design of innovative roof tiles. The tile design is inspired by the leaf structure of a tree species called Thuja plicata. It is found in the cloud forest in Canada.
The tree allows sunlight to penetrate through its leaves and releases heat, but not rain. Using this method the tiles could simply air-condition homes and buildings in an environmentally-friendly manner. And simultaneously collects rainwater. This technique can be specifically useful for huts in developing countries.
As per estimations, nearly 20% of the total electricity used in buildings worldwide is consumed by air conditioners. As the global temperature is rising so is the use of air conditioners. On the other hand, air conditioners emit CO2, contributing to global warming.
Therefore, a technology like this one can prove to be a significant contributor towards reducing emissions.
Nature has a mechanism which can capture water from fog to be used as drinking water. The inspiration comes from the plant species Salsola crassa, that inhabits one of the dirtiest parts of Turkey.
During the fog season, the younger plants have a soft layer of entangled hairs on their leaves. These hairs help in capturing water to sustain growth until they become adult plants and the hairs disappear.
This technique has been used in designing fibrous curtains that harvest fog of water. It could be of great use, particularly in countries with generally dry climates and scarcity of clean drinking water.
Surface scientists at Durham University are constantly working on solutions to tackle some of these crucial challenges in our society. And they have also learned that our natural world contains many answers.
A similar technique is being used by the Dar Si Hmad organisation in Morocco to trap atmospheric water using mesh nets.
Optimising Food Distribution
Cullen Naumoff, director of the sustainable enterprise for the Oberlin Project in Oberlin, Ohio started a food hub. The hub brings together the produce from small farmers into large quantities required by big buyers like supermarkets.
The Oberlin Food Hub was thriving with demands exceeding the ability to engage farmers to meet it. Naumoff spoke to other regional food hubs. But she had to drive all around the region to pick up and deliver produce alone. This was burdening the expenses of big food companies without benefiting from the economies of scale they enjoy.
Later, Naumoff met Ohio State University entomologist Casy Hoy at a food conference. She told Hoy of her difficulty trying to incorporate a higher level of a complex system into her food enterprise.
Hoy responded with what he had learnt from ants about efficient transportation. Different ant species use different types of networks of nests and paths to optimise food transportation. In the process, they create a library of strategies that can help humans solve their food transportation challenges.
Optimising Food Distribution
For example, Mexican ants use a hub-and-spoke model like big food distributors. Ants make trips to and fro from their central nest in search of food. Argentine ants split and join in new groups and nest temporarily as they go. Whereas Malaysian leaf-cutter ants have central nests with smaller ants carrying light loads and large ants carrying heavier.
This provided Naumoff with ideas on how to begin using ant food transportation strategies. Initially, she started with the Mexican and Argentine ant model.
This gave rise to a network called ‘Farm Fare’ that uses information technology to display food available from participating food hubs online. Other hubs can use this information to purchase the required food in bulk.
Currently, Naumoff is exploring the Malaysian ant model to offer local truck fleet owners the opportunity to take food hub orders. They can make use of their trucks when returning empty from other jobs.
Applying the ant strategy, Naumoff is now able to achieve her goals better to pay small farmers a reliable living wage. At the same time, she is also meeting the wholesale demand.