A new material inspired by the unique structure of owl wings is just the latest example of harnessing nature’s innovation genius. (Courtesy University of Cambridge)

When we think of the world’s foremost R&D labs, we usually think in terms of cutting-edge corporations, prestigious academic institutions or well-funded government labs. But time and time again, the best R&D lab turns out to be Mother Nature herself, which continues to spin out new innovations after 3.8 billion years of trial-and-error.

The latest example: Researchers at the University of Cambridge, in tandem with researchers at three U.S. universities (Virginia Tech, Lehigh and Florida Atlantic) are designing a new material coating inspired by the wing structure of owls that could make wind turbines and airplanes much quieter. In short, a better understanding of the same wing technology that enables owls to fly and hunt in near silence, swooping down undetected in order to pick off prey, can be used to reduce the noise of wind turbine blades and other fan blades, including those in airplanes. Best of all, they say, early wind tunnel tests of the coating have shown a substantial reduction in noise without any noticeable effect on aerodynamics.

The magic ingredient here is a unique plastic coating that, in its earliest iterations, resembled the fabric of a wedding veil. That may sound counterintuitive if you think of aerodynamics only in terms of sleek shapes. But the researchers took a closer look at the unique structure of owl wings, which consists not just of a downy feather covering, but also a comb-like structure of evenly spaced bristles and a porous and elastic fringe. They found that this structure makes an owl virtually silent as it swoops through the air – the air gets broken up into weaker air flows, where it won’t make as much noise. (If you’re in doubt about silent owls, watch this fascinating field test of owls in action.)

Owl feathers, the secret to quiet airplanes and even quieter fans. (Courtesy University of Cambridge)

If this new material coating can ever be mass-produced, there are some practical consumer-facing considerations here – for example, giant wind turbines could spin faster and quieter than ever before. Right now, wind turbines are subject to “braking,” which slows them down in order to reduce noise. The coating, once applied to commercial aircraft, could reduce the noise of Boeing or Airbus airplanes as they streak across the sky.

Even something basic like that the annoying cooling fan in your computer, say researchers, might be made quieter once it’s coated with this new material. And, of course, there’s a military application here as well – think stealth jet fighters that can noiselessly pick off unsuspecting targets. (Part of the funding for the project comes from the U.S. Office of Naval Research).

Even if the term “biomimicry” only entered the innovation lexicon in the 1990s, this is not the first time in history that nature has been the inspiration for world-changing new innovations. Back in the 1500s, for example, Leonardo da Vinci started making sketches of flying machines inspired by birds. Humans have always been fascinated by nature’s ability to create wonderfully unique innovations. However, what appear to be some of Mother Nature’s simplest innovations – spider webs, for example – often turn out to be extraordinarily difficult to replicate in the lab.

The classic example of an innovation inspired by nature, of course, is Velcro, which was modeled on the tiny hook-and-loop structure of burdock burrs. (According to innovation lore, a Swiss engineer out for a hike in the Alps with his dog thought up the concept for Velcro when some burrs got stuck to his clothing.) Digital display technologies found in some big-screen TVs are based on the unique color properties of butterfly wings. Self-cleaning glass is based on the properties of the lotus plant.

There’s actually a fairly rich innovation literature around human attempts to mimic nature around it, mostly because Nature is wonderfully adept at making waterproof materials and finding new ways to heat or cool surfaces. After Janine Benyus published her groundbreaking book (“Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”), R&D researchers have discovered growing numbers of applications for innovations found in nature (usually based around some creature that you’d never associate with innovation, such as the Namibian desert beetle).

The goal in each case is to apply the natural genius of nature to solve real-world human problems. As Benyus explained in a 2009 TEDGlobal Talk, coral reefs can inspire better methods for making cement, bacteria-repellent sharks can inspire new ways to prevent hospital infections, leaf structures can inspire new types of solar cells and kingfisher birds can inspire new designs for bullet trains. On the Ask Nature Web site, in fact, you can match up potential innovations with the seemingly magical properties of creatures found in nature.

Why it all matters so much now is that — with the rise of increasingly powerful computers and a growing base of biomimicry solutions to build upon — we now have the potential to apply nature’s innovations to a wider array of design and engineering problems that extend beyond just products and materials. If you push on the concept of biomimicry hard enough, you can start to see applications that go way beyond new innovative products such as self-cleaning glass or crisper TV screens.

Maybe Mother Nature really does know best. If so, innovations such as quieter airplanes inspired by owls are just the cutting edge of what’s possible once we apply nature’s innovations to fields such as medicine, energy, ecology or even space travel.