UC Berkeley biologist Robert Full uses his 18 TED-minutes to discuss the field of biodesign, and the lessons engineers can take from evolution.
Although nature may inspire incredible designs, Full argues that it should be used only cautiously as a model for human engineering: “Evolution works more like a tinkerer than an engineer” —on the “just good enough” rather than the “perfecting” principle. Similarly, evolutionary “design” is limited in ways human designers shouldn't be (imagine an automobile that must be created with an automobile-making factory inside it).
That said, Full has dedicated himself to using designs evolved in nature as inspiration for some incredible machines.
Full’s lab realized that bugs (particularly cockroaches) are able to maneuver well over all kinds of obstacles. So (naturally) they put them on mini-treadmills (amazing footage of this) and through obstacle courses to study their movements, and designed simple, insect-inspired machines with springy legs that were incredibly successful at negotiating all types of terrain, and have potential to be used for all kinds of stuff, including future NASA missions.
To figure out how geckos walk up walls, they stuck them on vertical, see-through treadmills (more awesome footage). They discovered, after eliminating obvious guesses like friction and suction, that geckos adhere to walls through intermolecular, or Van Der Waals, forces. They built a gecko-inspired robot, and are trying to get closer to manufacturing the tiny, powerful hairs (setae) on gecko-feet that allow them to stick.
Since this talk (in 2002), a lot of advances in the field of biodesign have been made, many of them at Stanford—see http://bdml.stanford.edu/twiki/bin/view/Rise/StickyBot for info on Stanford’s own gecko-mimicry project, “StickyBot.”