Gliding through the world of bionics

Germany's bionis pavilion reveals high-tech developments based on nature

No. 11 / Tokyo/Nagoya - February 2005

The German pavilion at EXPO 2005 in Aichi will offer visitors a world premiere: a 300-metre rail transport system weighing 150 tonnes that was specially developed for the world exhibition. Up to 500 visitors an hour will be transported in droplet-shaped cabins through an elaborate artificial landscape that was created in the legendary Babelsberg film studios in Germany. The journey will focus on entertainment and information alike. Within the scope of “bionis” the German pavilion will present products and results of bionics research and development. Vivid displays will teach visitors how high-tech products are created according to natural principles, from vehicle designs modelled on penguins to medical diagnostics based on mechanisms used by bats.

Visitors begin their journey at the entrance of the German pavilion in a large cave where a flickering bonfire as well as oversized bats, spiders and primitive birds create a mysterious atmosphere. Each of the “drops” has room for six passengers. The journey soon turns into an adventure. The visitors, securely seated within their drop of water, are transported upwards through various layers of the earth and then rapidly slide downwards again. The drop plunges them underwater, sails them across a wide river, and carries them safely through a violent storm. A sophisticated technical system consisting of “seat-shakers” in the cabins and the wave-shaped course of the rails simulates the raging elements. Finally, the visitors emerge into a typical German river valley landscape. The drop floats along the Rhine River, and the backdrops show many well-known German motifs including Neuschwanstein Castle, Berlin, the Loreley, a coastal landscape and the Alps.

During the journey, visitors also see examples of bionics research in Germany. A built-in display inside the cabin explains what the visitors are seeing. The displays include:

  • an offshore wind park that illustrates Germany's leading role in the use and development of renewable energy sources,
  • a woman athlete wearing a bathing suit modelled on sharkskin that shares the streamlining properties of this natural material,
  • a gigantic artificial lotus blossom whose surface is sprayed with paint in order to demonstrate the self-cleaning properties of its petals,
  • the airfoil of the new Airbus 380, which demonstrates how fanned-out wingtips called “winglets” save fuel and eliminate noise.

Finally, a robot picks up the “drop” and takes it into the “Experience Lab”, where the visitors themselves can play the role of researchers and developers. All of the exhibits can be handled and tried out by the visitors.

The first topic to be covered is streamlining bionics. Visitors are shown the links between penguins and aerodynamics, what dragonflies have in common with helicopters, and how the tips of an eagle's wings resemble those of an airplane.

  • A real eye-catcher in this section is “Sturmvogel”, the plane flown in 1894 by the famous German engineer Otto Lilienthal, who built and flew the first gliders in Germany. The exhibit shows how close examination of the wings of large birds and studies of avian flight led to the construction of the first successful aircraft.
  • A flock of penguins accompanied by a dashing little research submarine demonstrates that it's possible to fly underwater as well. Using the perfectly streamlined bodies of penguins as models, engineers are constructing airplanes, submarines and land vehicles that eclipse all previous developments.
  • ”Igor” is the name of a bird model that is used by bionics researchers to study the streaming processes that take place when a bird is beating its wings. Visitors can interactively control the model's movements and track the resulting images of air turbulence on several monitors.
  • “Delta Loop” and “Loop” are two futuristic models of ultra-light airplanes equipped with bionic ring propellers and loop-shaped wing ends.
  • The Trailing Edge Devices (TEDs) developed by the European aerospace group EADS are based on the outstanding flight performance of birds and insects. When fastened to the airfoils of aircraft, TEDs improve flight performance, and when they are attached to the ends of helicopters' rotor blades they reduce noise emissions and vibration.

Sensorics is another theme at the pavilion. Acoustic imaging is a key aspect of modern measuring technology, biomedical technology, non-destructive materials testing and environmental diagnostics. Here too, nature has already done plenty of development work:

  • Siemens invites visitors to experiment with the latest ultrasound diagnostic technology, which enables doctors to look into our bodies and create four-dimensional images of our internal organs.
  • An acoustic camera makes it possible to “see” sound. With its help, visitors can take a look at the noise created by the air turbulence at the tips of the propellers of a helicopter or a wind turbine. The computer shows spectral analyses and slow-motion films and enables viewers to “listen” to the images. BMW is exhibiting models of a passenger car and a motorcycle that reveal what a variety of principles vehicle designers have borrowed from nature:
  • The bat serves as the role-model for intelligent sensorics.
  • Coconut fibre used as insulation material illustrates the significance of renewable raw materials.
  • Bone structure demonstrates how extremely light materials can have extreme stability.
  • Once again, a penguin is the model for a vehicle design that combines aesthetic and aerodynamic advantages.

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