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A Natural Solution to Security Problems

When Sir Walter Scott wrote “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, / When first we practice to deceive!” he likely had no idea that spiders really do weave deception into their webs. But scientists have recently found a species of spider that fashions a body double out of bits of debris, successfully using the decoy to confuse predators.

That discovery, reported by the BBC, is just one example of how the natural world deploys creative security solutions. Luckily for human security professionals, it’s a burgeoning field of interest to scientists, biologists, engineers, and others who are studying the animal and insect worlds for inspiration.

One such attempt was made in the book Natural Security, a collection of writings intended to apply strategic lessons from nature directly to post-9-11 security problems. Unfortunately, its nearly 300 pages convey mostly well-accepted precepts, such as that nature is redundant and adaptive, and we should be too. While the authors posit some potentially interesting analogies, such as between the spread of infection in nature and the spread of terrorist ideology, there are few truly surprising insights.

Far more interesting are the hard-science explorations into how nature seems effortlessly to accomplish functions we puny humans have yet to achieve even with our most sophisticated technology—such as the blowfly’s ability to turn 90 degrees in 50 milliseconds. Biomimetics is a field of study devoted to getting answers to these questions. It seeks to reverse engineer various species’ capabilities in order to replicate or adapt those designs to solve human problems, including security concerns.

The promise of biomimetics was laid out in an article by Tom Mueller published in National Geographic last year. Security-related solutions being pursued include how to adapt the microstructures that give beetles their bright metallic coloration to anticounterfeiting components, such as holograms, and how to learn from the abalone, which creates armor as strong as Kevlar using only the element that makes up soft chalk.

Mueller also highlighted the challenges facing researchers: He noted that several firms had gone bankrupt trying to replicate the tensile strength of a spider’s silk and that six well-funded research teams trying to mimic a gecko’s agility in walking up walls had made little more than rudimentary progress.

But even a few nature-inspired products can make a big difference in security. And there have been successes. For example, just two months ago, the Jerusalem Post reported that Israeli military research efforts have yielded a biomimetic robot snake that can be used to help locate survivors of a terrorist attack or to conduct enemy reconnaissance missions.

Mother Nature doesn’t patent her secrets, perhaps because she knows how difficult those elegant designs can be to discern and to replicate. But humans are persistent, a trait that may be our own “killer app,” so there’s little doubt that more of these fascinating efforts will eventually pay off.