Biomimicry and sport are teammates in the race for innovation! Every year, science enables sport to push back performance standards, both humanly and technologically. Whether at sea or in the mountains, on the road or in the air: nature drives sport to innovate!
Gliding sports and biomimicry : it's all about innovation!
For many, the practice of sport is based on an exchange with nature: board sports, which use the environment as a support, are the perfect example! Whether it's water, air or snow, man has learned to conquer the elements over the centuries by honing his equipment and his interactions with the outside world. The living world orchestrates the movements of millions of species in constraining, even hostile, environments. This makes it an ideal ally when it comes to improving gliding sports technologies!
One of the most famous examples of biomimicry concerns an innovation in the field of sports. Inspired by the shark's remarkably hydrodynamic skin, the Speedo swimwear brand developed the Fastskin collection in the 2000s... banned in 2009 by the International Swimming Federation after accompanying 108 world records the previous year!
But when it comes to board sports, biomimicry has more than one trick up its sleeve. Another bio-inspired wetsuit, this time for surfers, has been developed by a team of researchers from MIT and Ecole Polytechnique. The researchers were interested in the fur of small rodents, such as otters, which have the ability to keep their skin dry and warm despite frequent bathing. The study of this phenomenon enabled them to prototype a material that combines lightness with ultra-high-performance thermal properties! The innovative feature of these animals' coats is their density, which enables them to trap micro-bubbles of air against their skin, acting as insulation during bathing. Wetsuits two to five times thinner could be designed while retaining standard mechanical properties and thermal insulation. This could lead to major savings in materials, in line with sustainable development objectives!
In addition to water sports, aerial sports can benefit from biomimetic solutions to improve gliding performance. In fact, to enable flying animals to reach the stars, a wealth of biological solutions have been refined over billions of years of evolution. These represent a wealth of sober, innovative ideas for aerial gliding sports such as paragliding and hang-gliding!
In this respect, dragonflies are perfect models. Indeed, their wings, which skilfully combine rigidity and flexibility, make them true pilots in flight, able to perform an immense variety of aerial manoeuvres: they would make more than one aerobatics specialist blush. Whether it's near-instantaneous changes of direction, brutal acceleration, flying backwards, vertically or even hovering, there's not a single one of these disciplines that odonates haven't mastered! To make this "sport" mode possible, dragonfly wings have a network of rigid veins that allow them to deform in preferred directions. They are fitted with small appendages that act as mechanical safety devices, protecting the wings from breaking. By replicating this sophisticated structure on artificial sails, researchers at the University of Kiel in Germany have shown that the sails' load resistance and durability can be greatly optimized. Could this be the inspiration for tomorrow's kite sails?
Mountain sports and biomimicry: innovation towards the infinite and the tops!
The mountains are the favorite playground of those who wish to combine sport and nature. Biomimicry is also an expert in this combination!
Alpine sports, which require man to evolve in often testing environmental conditions, rely on a host of technologies that have been the subject of numerous innovations.
Biomimicry: an ideal ally for innovation in high-altitude sports.
Skiing, where today's equipment bears little resemblance to that used at the beginning of the last century, is a telling example of what technology can bring to sport. Bio-inspired innovation for winter sports has already proved its worth: in 2016, a team of EPFL researchers, in partnership with manufacturer Stöckli, developed biomimetic skis with optimal mechanical behavior. To achieve this, they used turtle shells as a model: these are made up of a precise assembly of rigid parts held in a flexible matrix, enabling them to combine flexibility for their breathing, and solidity to resist external shocks. Building skis with a similar structure has made it possible to improve the equipment's adaptability to the stresses applied by skiers during their descents. In other words, skis are stiffer during turns, while maintaining their maneuverability outside them.
Among high-altitude activities, trail running is another sport for which biomimicry has come up with solutions that have met unanimous approval. Here again, nature is a goldmine for innovation. All terrestrial species are faced with the problem of grip, which must be mastered to perfection to ensure their survival! Mountain goats, for example, have specially-structured hooves that enable them to evolve easily in their environment, despite the steep slopes they face to feed. The edges of the hooves have a reinforced hardness that enables them to grip any holds protruding from the ground. The plantar surface, in the center, combines roughness to maximize grip, and compressibility to adapt to surface irregularities and act as a suction pad. The study of these characteristics enabled Nike to develop Goat-Tech technology in the early 2000s, long considered one of the best technologies for mountain sports shoes!
Protection in sport : biomimicry, a guardian angel
Romain Grosjean's accident at the recent Bahrain Grand Prix, during which the driver suffered deceleration equivalent to more than 50 times his body weight before miraculously extricating himself from his vehicle, reminded us that protection is an essential element of sport. Fortunately, biomimicry is a top-level athlete when it comes to innovating with impact... when it comes to shock absorption!
To absorb blows without failing, living beings have refined numerous techniques that could be used to ensure greater safety for athletes. Let's take the example of American Football, a sport in which protective equipment is in urgent need of improvement. Indeed, the repeated shocks to which professionals are exposed during every match of their career cause them numerous medical problems, foremost among which are concussions! To design safer helmets, Ohio-based start-up Hedgemon turned its attention to animals known for their defensive posture: hedgehogs. When they drop from trees, they're capable of plummeting 10 meters without injury! To practise this very special sport safely, they rely on the thousands of quills on their backs. These famous quills have a hollow structure, enriched with striations along their length. They act as reinforcements, combining lightness and strength. In the event of a fall, the quills absorb part of the energy by deforming and distribute the rest over the hedgehogs' subcutaneous muscle layer, thus limiting the shock on landing! Based on this analysis, Hedgemon is now prototyping a layer replicating the behavior of hedgehog quills, to be inserted in helmets to better protect athletes from concussion.
Another potential biological source of inspiration for shock absorption in sport is the grapefruit. This fruit, which sometimes weighs up to 6 kilograms, emancipates itself from its grapefruit tree by falling from heights of up to 15 meters, without cracking or exploding! To dissipate the energy received during its fall, the grapefruit has a very special structure. Its mesocarp, at the interface between its soft quarters and its rigid skin, is made up of pores whose density increases progressively, from the center outwards. This structure ensures continuity in the structural properties of the tissue, preventing it from exploding on landing! Numerous teams are working on the development of absorbent materials inspired by the grapefruit, including the PROSE laboratory at Texas A&M University.
Sport and biomimétisme : nature, the stage for ou athletes' achievements
If biomimicry can have an influence on what happens on the sports field, it's also possible to find a trail of the bio-inspired approach... in the construction of that field! Indeed, many structures have been built using nature's ingenuity, and sports infrastructures have been no exception. The next world records will be set in style!
Munich's Olympic Park, a sports monument built for the 1972 Summer Games, is a perfect example. A roof made up of an assembly of steel cables, supported by Plexiglas sheets, covers numerous buildings. The structure formed by the cables is inspired by that of spider webs, optimized by millions of years of evolution to stretch over large surfaces without being weakened by their environment or their own weight. As a result, the roof's mechanical properties are optimized: it's strong and vibration-proof, yet remarkably light! What's more, its relatively simple composition makes it easy to build and economical in terms of materials, given the surface area to be covered. For the record, this stadium has played a key role in the history of French sport: Olympique de Marseille won the Champions League here in 1993. The only one to date (2021) by a French team in the competition!
A more recent example of a sports facility that has benefited from the bio-inspired approach is Shanghai's Qi Zhong Stadium, which hosts the annual Shanghai Masters 1000 (Tennis Turnament). To design the roof of this stadium, architect Mitsuru Senda took inspiration from the shape of the magnolia, the city's symbolic flower, as well as from its photonasty, i.e. the way it moves its leaves to coordinate the intensity of external light with its needs. This enabled the architect to create a roof made up of 8 petals, capable of opening in 8 minutes to let in light on sunny days!
From sports equipment to facilities, in the water or in the air, to improve performance or protect the body: biomimicry in sport is developing at breakneck speed!