Biomimicry: The Kingfisher Story

Biomimicry has played a big role in the designs of transportation. Everything from boats and submarines to airplanes and helicopters have been based on the shape of various fish and birds. One of my favorite examples of transportation biomimicry is based on the sleek beak of the kingfisher.

Common kingfisher. Source:

In the late 1990’s, Japanese engineers designed their famous bullet train which allowed people to travel from city to city with speed reaching close to 200 mph! There was one big problem though. Whenever the train would exit the train tunnels it would create a sonic boom (a loud sound) that could be heard up to 400 meters away, waking up nearby residents and disturbing local wildlife. The sound registered well above normal environmental standards. People on the train had also noticed a change in atmospheric pressure when entering and exiting the tunnels. After studying the design of the the train, the engineers realized the shape of the train’s nose was the problem. It was round like bullet.

So we ask:

How does nature flow without turbulence?

How does it streamline to move efficiently? 

Avid bird watcher and engineer Eifi Nakatsu looked to nature for a solution. Nakatsu noticed the kingfisher had a unique beak that allowed him to dive effortlessly into water with minimal splashing. The kingfisher’s spear-shaped beak and head pierces the surface of the water and creates an opening for the bird’s body to glide in smoothly.

The kingfisher’s wedge-shaped beak allows it to enter the water with little splashing to sneak up on it’s prey. Source:

Nakatsu redesigned the bullet train’s nose and front end to resemble the kingfisher’s wedge-shaped beak. The train can now travel smoothly through the tunnels with lower resistance and a lot less noise. And, thanks to the streamlining of the train, it uses 15% less energy and runs 10% faster.

In class, the students took on the role of engineers looking to make the best gliders. First, we learned about different animals who glide through air and water like flying squirrels, birds, and sea turtles. Next, students created one or two designs they thought would work. After they assembled their gliders, it was time to test and tune! We measured to see how far the gliders would go, if they flew straight, and checked to see what kind of landing it had. After that, they took them back inside for modifications and tweaks, and tested them again! There were some pretty awesome designs being made!

Here is your take-home challenge:

Water transportation! Research different ocean animals to learn their body shapes and any cool adaptations they have. Collect a bunch of  materials from around your home (cardboard, foil, water bottles, tape, glue, scissors, Popsicle sticks, straws, etc) and have your student create a vessel for the water. It could be a sailboat, a large ship, or even a submarine! After their design is complete, test it out in a bathtub to see how well it moves in the water. Remember, engineers will try several designs to see what will work the best. Happy creating!


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