Twenty percent of the world’s water is wasted due to leaky pipes. That’s enough water to serve an additional 1 billion people and comes at a huge cost in terms of energy and excessive infrastructure repair. Watchtower Robotics, this year’s $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize® winner, set out to address the problem of assessing water utility pipes for leaks, looking to nature to inform their solution.
As a young child growing up in Changzhou, China, Dr. You Wu, co-founder of Watchtower Robotics, was no stranger to the struggles of water scarcity, which later fueled his interest in water conservation. City officials in his hometown would deliberately ration water with planned outages to manage the growing demand on their already overburdened water grids. These early experiences, coupled with a growing ambition to tackle to tackle a major world problem, set him on a course towards building the early prototypes that eventually became the winning design.
While a graduate student at MIT, Dr. Wu had the idea of developing a soft-bodied robot to inspect city pipes for leaks. He took inspiration from blind cave fish and the lateral line system they use to detect changes in water pressure in order to develop new leak sensing technology. When Boston-based Watchtower ran into challenges fitting their robots through narrow-diameter pipes and branching junctions, they looked to octopus to enhance the compressibility of their robot. They also took inspiration from the propulsion system of jellyfish, allowing their robots to take advantage of the energy available from water flowing through the pipes.
“The blind cave fish, octopus, and jellyfish all deserve our thanks,” says Tyler Mantel, co-founder of Watchtower Robotics. “Our experience at the Biomimicry Launchpad this year revolutionized our robot. At Watchtower, we care about saving water, and with the $100,000 Ray of Hope prize, we will commercialize our production to make a serious impact around the globe.”
Sponsored by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, the Ray of Hope Prize is awarded annually to the top team in the Biomimicry Launchpad, the world’s only accelerator program that supports biomimicry entrepreneurs as they take early-stage, nature-inspired solutions to market.
Aruga Technologies won second place, taking home a $25,000 prize for its vascular implant technology. Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Aruga identified a pattern in nature: the function of dynamic surface wrinkles to keep surfaces clean. Dynamic wrinkling helps keep dolphin skin from becoming fouled with barnacles and algae, for example, and also keeps human lungs and blood vessels free from deposits. Applying this idea to vascular grafts has the potential to not only save on healthcare costs and achieve better patient outcomes, but also has sustainability wins due to decreased needs for replacement grafts and days spent in Intensive Care Units. Although the company’s market entry point is the surgical graft market, this technology has the potential for anti-fouling applications in aquaculture, roofing, and industrial process hosing.
Seven international teams completed the Launchpad program this year and competed for the Ray of Hope Prize, which was awarded at Circularity 19 in Minneapolis. Other solutions included a zero-energy sewage treatment solution, inspired by a cow’s stomach, from a team in Bangalore; a chemical-free mechanical mosquito control device, inspired by bladderwort plants and whale baleen; and a frost protection system for vineyards and other crops based on lessons learned from moonflowers and giant groundsels; and more.
Want a chance to learn about biomimicry while applying it to develop climate change solutions? To learn how to design generously, so that all species on this planet can thrive? A new round of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge will open soon to students and professionals looking to make a difference. Learn more and register at challenge.biomimicry.org. You can win cash prizes, as well as the opportunity to join the Biomimicry Launchpad to get support to bring your idea to market.
Did you know that you can also apply directly to the Launchpad? The Institute will accept direct applicants from entrepreneurs with already-existing, early-stage nature-inspired climate change innovations. Sign up to be notified when a new application round opens.