Called "biomimetics," this practice of learning from nature has led to the development of -- among other things -- a facsimile of bone.
Bone is very light because of its porous interior, but it's also very strong. LARC scientists can make structures similar to bone by injecting polymer microspheres into composite shells of the desired shape, then heating the spheres to make them fuse together like tiny soap bubbles.
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LARC scientists are studying nature to understand how birds and insects achieve their high degree of efficiency and manoeuvrability.
"If you can have the strength and lack of weight of these bone-like structures that I'm talking about, then add in nerve-like sensors and these flexible actuators, what you're going to end up with is an extremely lightweight, very strong, self-sensing, self-actuating structure."
Compare that vision to the rigid, numb, heavy structures airplanes are made of today, and you'll get a sense of the dramatic difference "smart" materials could make in aerospace design.
As with all basic science, the applications of these "smart" materials will extend to technologies outside of the aerospace industry.
"We are working very closely with two different commercialisation groups funded by NASA," McGowan said, "and the outlook for this technology is on the order of millions of applications."