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Inventions: Following Nature's Lead

An inventor looks to nature for the answers.

Inventor Rob Yonover got his start studying volcanoes.

Nature has mechanisms, materials, and designs for making things waterproof, aerodynamic, solar-powered, stain-proof-and even sticky and sexy. So Rob Yonover, scientist, volcanologist, inventor-and fisherman and big-wave surfer in his spare time-looks to nature to see how problems are solved naturally and how things are constructed to withstand natural forces and threats.

Yonover's inventions are geared toward survival. His most successful invention, the RescueStreamer, is an emergency signaling device used by all branches of the U.S. Military and onboard all U.S. Navy submarines. His Self-Deploying Infra-Red Streamer is now being placed on fighter-jet aircraft. The RescueStreamer, a long, orange streamer with struts, has already saved lives in the ocean and in the mountainous terrains of Afghanistan.

Yonover invented the RescueStreamer technology to solve a tricky problem he hopes he'll never experience-a plane crash at sea. Survivors of plane crashes at sea repeatedly relate how rescue planes flew over, time and time again, and never saw them. Yonover was challenged by the problem of making a person or object in an expanse of water or land visible to rescue parties. He looked down to earth from an airplane, evaluated aerial pictures of water and land, and noted straight lines are very rare. Neuroscientists say the brain best responds to straight lines.

In a series of tests, humans were subjected to a variety of specialized colors and shapes to see which stimuli most quickly triggered the brain. It was only when the photographic slide skipped off the viewer exposing the straight edge of the photo that the brain went crazy and fired off immediate responses. Research shows that it was likely something in the human genetic makeup providing a warning in potentially dangerous situations. The RescueStreamer concept was born: Yonover needed a straight, floating, bright line in the ocean. Like all his inventions, it sounds simple. But it took years to perfect.

Looking to nature for examples of elongated objects that remain relatively straight despite forces, he thought of human vertebrae and a palm tree. He tinkered in his laboratory (read patio at the back of his house) while his wife yelled at him to stop playing with plastic and get a real job. He came up with the idea of struts. On its first ocean test, initially the streamer with struts started to bunch up in the waves, then suddenly the currents stretched it and the struts caused it to straighten out like a spinning helix-the most beautiful thing the inventor had ever seen in the ocean.

Nature helped again when choosing ways to make the RescueStreamer visible at night. On a trip on the ALVIN submersible 10,000 feet down the Galapagos volcanic ridge, Yonover saw strange glowing critters roaming the ocean floor. One had a head like a monkey's skull and a clear, eel-like tail with inner organs glowing in a variety of colors. He'd found the perfect solution for a visible-at-night RescueStreamer-glow-in-the-dark bioluminescent struts.

How do you follow nature's lead to find solutions? Yonover advises: Use your inner ape. Carefully observe your surroundings for ideas and inspirations. Look at the way nature solves problems and what plants and animals do to survive. Become one with nature and try to come up with solutions using the materials at hand. This inventor finds that the deeper he gets into nature, the clearer he sees and is able to attack the problem at hand.

Other inventors have turned to nature too. In the robotics field creatures from fish to lizards have inspired a class of robots that can go where people can't, or prefer not to, go. One such example, DARTS (Device for Acceleration and Rapid Turning,) is based on the morphology of freshwater pike. Scientists at IS Robotics have developed a three-foot-long DART prototype in collaboration with the MIT Department of Ocean Engineering that can navigate hydrothermal vents deep under the sea or conduct near-shore military surveillance. Among other robots featured are Stickybot, a robot with gecko-like feet; Ariel, a six-legged crablike robot used to remove mines underwater; and BigDog , the alpha male robot of Boston Robotics that can haul 340-pound loads over harsh terrain as it carries equipment for the military.

Another inventing tip from Yonover is: Simplify. Intricate things have more components that might fail: batteries go flat, electronics malfunction, chemicals change or dissipate. Remember the acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). People looking at his inventions often say, "Sorry to insult you, but that looks so simple." But it's really a compliment.

For an inventor, coming up with the great eureka idea is the beginning. It's making an invention a reality and bringing it to people that are the hard parts.

See the RescueStreamer clip, as well as his book: Hardcore Inventing: Invent, Protect, Promote, Profit by Robert Yonover Ph.D. and Ellie Crowe (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009).