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the study of living systems with the intention of applying their principles to the design of engineering systems. Drawing on interdisciplinary research in the mechanical and life sciences, bionics has been used to develop audiovisual equipment based on human eye and ear function, to design air and naval craft patterned after the biological structure of birds and fish, and to incorporate principles of the human neurological system in data-processing systems. Another application has been the development of experimental artificial limbsartificial limb,
mechanical replacement for a missing limb. An artificial limb, called a prosthesis, must be light and flexible to permit easy movement, but must also be sufficiently sturdy to support the weight of the body or to manipulate objects.
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 that can be controlled by a person's thoughts and retinal implants consisting of an electrode array that receives visual data from an external camera.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a science on the borderline between biology and engineering that solves engineering problems on the basis of an analysis of the structure and activity of organisms. Bionics is closely related to biology, physics, chemistry, and cybernetics and to the engineering sciences, such as electronics, navigation, communications, and marine engineering.

Credit for the idea of using knowledge about living things to solve engineering problems goes to Leonardo da Vinci, who tried to construct an ornithopter, a flying machine with wings flapping like a bird’s. As cybernetics—the study of the general principles of control and communication in living organisms and in machines—developed, there was stimulated a wider study of the structure and functions of living systems for the purpose of determining what they have in common with technical systems and a study of ways of using the knowledge gained to design new instruments, devices, materials, and so on. The first symposium on bionics (Dayton, Ohio, 1960) officially certified the birth of the new science.

The main lines of research in bionics involve the following: study of the nervous system of man and animals and modeling nerve cells (neurons) and neuronal circuits to improve computer technology and to develop new elements and devices for automation and telemechanics (neurobionics); investigation of the sense organs and other perceiving systems of live organisms to develop new sensors and detection systems; study of the principles of orientation, location, and navigation in different animals to use these principles in technology; and investigation of the morphological, physiological, and biochemical characteristics of organisms to stimulate new technical and scientific ideas.

Studies of the nervous system. Studies of the nervous system showed that it possesses a number of important and valuable characteristics and advantages over all the most up-to-date computers. These characteristics, which must be studied in order to improve electronic computer systems, are as follows: (1) complete, flexible reception of external information regardless of the form in which it arrives (for example, handwriting, type, color of the text, drawings, timbre and other qualities of the voice, and other forms); (2) high reliability, greatly exceeding that of technical systems, which malfunction when there is a break in the circuit of one or more components; even if several million of the billions of cells forming the brain die, the system can continue to function; (3) the miniature size of elements of the nervous system: with 1010 to 1011 cells, the human brain is 1.5 cu decimeters in size, but a transistorized device with this number of elements would require several hundred if not several thousand cu m of space; (4) functional efficiency, with the human brain consuming no more than several dozen watts of energy; (5) high degree of self-organization of the nervous system and rapid adaptation to new situations and to change in programs of activity.

Attempts to model the human and animal nervous systems began with the construction of analogues of neurons and their networks. Various kinds of artificial neurons were developed. Artificial “nerve networks” capable of self-organization, that is, of returning to a steady state after disruption of their equilibrium, were created. Study of memory and other properties of the nervous system is the principal method of creating “thinking” machines to automate complex industrial and control processes. Study of the mechanisms responsible for the reliability of the nervous system is very important for engineering because a solution to this primary technical problem would provide a key for ensuring the reliability of several technical systems (for example, aircraft equipment, which can contain 105 electronic elements).

Studies of the analyzer systems. Every animal and human analyzer that perceives stimuli (such as light and sound) consists of a receptor (or sense organ), conduction pathways, and a brain center. These are highly complex and sensitive formations that have no equal among technical devices. Technical progress and scientific research could be significantly accelerated by miniature and reliable sensors of unrivaled sensitivity—for example, sensors with the properties of the eye, which reacts to single quanta of light; the heat-sensitive organ of a rattlesnake, which can distinguish temperature changes of 0.001° C; or the electrical organ of a fish, which perceives a fraction of a microvolt of potential.

Most of the information reaching man’s brain comes through the most important analyzer of all, the visual analyzer. The following characteristics of this organ are of interest from the engineering standpoint: wide range of sensitivity, from single quanta to intensive light fluxes; change in clarity of vision from the center to the periphery; continuous tracking of moving objects; and adaptation to static images (to examine a motionless object the eye makes tiny oscillatory movements at a frequency of 1 to 150 hertz [Hz]). The development of an artificial retina is useful for technical purposes. (The retina is a highly complex structure; for example, the human eye has 108 photoreceptors, connected to the brain by 106 ganglial cells.) One version of an artificial retina (analogous to the frog retina) consists of three layers. The first contains 1,800 photoreceptor compartments. The second is made up of “neurons” that interpret positive and negative signals from the photoreceptors and ensure contrasting images. The third layer has 650 “cells” of five different kinds. Research in this area is making it possible to create tracking devices for automatic recognition. Study of the sensation of spatial depth in one eye (monocular vision) led to the creation of a spatial depth analyzer for interpreting aerial photographs.

Efforts are under way to imitate the acoustic analyzer of man and animals. This analyzer too is highly sensitive. Persons with acute hearing can perceive sound with pressure oscillation in the auditory passage of about 10 microns per cu m (0.0001 dyne per cu cm). Also of technical interest is the mechanism of transmission of information from the ear to the auditory region of the brain.

The organ of smell in animals is being studied in order to create an “artificial nose,” an electronic instrument for analyzing small concentrations of odoriferous substances in the air or water (some fishes can sense a concentration of a few mg per cu m [micrograms per liter]).

Many organisms have analyzer systems not found in man. For example, on the 12th segment of the antennae in the grasshopper is a tubercle that can perceive infrared radiation. Sharks and skates have canals on the head and front of the trunk which can perceive temperature changes of 0.1°C. Snails and ants are sensitive to radioactivity. Fish seem to be able to perceive stray currents caused by electrification of the air (as evidenced by the fact they flee to deeper waters before a storm). Mosquitoes move along set routes within an artificial magnetic field. Some animals can readily sense in-frasonic and ultrasonic vibrations. Some jellyfish react to infrasonic vibrations occurring before a storm. Bats emit ultrasonic vibrations in the 45 to 90 kHz range, while the moths on which they feed have organs sensitive to these waves. Owls also have an “ultrasound receiver” to detect bats.

A potentially promising approach is to construct not only technical analogues of the sense organs of animals but also biologically sensitive components (for example, a bee’s eye to detect ultraviolet radiation and a cockroach’s eye to detect infrared rays).

Of great value in technical designing are the so-called perceptrons, or “self-teaching” systems, that perform logical functions of recognition and classification. They correspond to the brain centers where incoming information is processed. Most of the research is devoted to the recognition of visual, acoustic, or other images, that is, to the formation of a signal or code that unambiguously refers to a particular object. Recognition must take place regardless of any changes in the image (for example, in such characteristics as its brightness or color) while retaining its basic meaning. These self-organizing, recognizing devices work without preliminary programming if they are gradually trained by their human operator. He presents images, signals mistakes, and reinforces correct responses. The input system of the per-ceptron is its perceiving or receptor field; for the recognition of visual objects, it is a set of photocells.

After a period of “training,” the perceptron can make independent decisions. Devices based on perceptrons have been designed for the reading and recognition of text and drawings, as well as for analysis of oscillograms, X rays, and so on.

Study of systems of detection, navigation, and orientation. The study of systems of detection, navigation, and orientation in birds, fish, and other animals is another important task of bionics, because accurate, miniature sensing and analyzing systems that help animals to orient themselves, find prey, and migrate for thousands of kilometers can be useful in perfecting instruments for aviation, maritime, and other uses. Ultrasonic location is found in bats and a number of marine animals (fish, dolphins). Sea turtles are known to swim thousands of kilometers away from a shore and then return to lay eggs always at the same place. They are believed to have two systems, one for long-distance orientation by the stars and another for near orientation by odor (chemical composition of coastal waters). The male emperor moth can find a female up to 10 km away. Bees and wasps orient themselves well by the sun. Study of these many and varied detection systems may provide much useful information to engineers.

Study of the morphology of living organisms. Study of the morphology of living organisms likewise provides new ideas for technical designing. For example, study of the structure of the skin of swiftly moving aquatic animals (for instance, the dolphin) made it possible to increase the speed of ships. (The dolphin’s skin does not get soaked, and it has an elasticity that helps to subdue turbulent eddies and to enable the animal to glide along with minimum friction.) A special sheath has been created, an artificial “laminar flow” skin, that permits the speed of ships to be increased by 15 to 20 percent.

Two-winged insects have appendages (halters) that vibrate continuously with the wings. The direction of the movements of the halters does not change with a change in the flight direction, but the peduncle by which they are attached to the body tightens and the insect receives a signal of a change in flight direction. This principle was used to construct a gyrotron, a Y-shaped vibrator that ensures high stabilization of the flight direction of an airplane traveling at great speeds. An airplane equipped with a gyrotron can be automatically brought out of a spin.

The flying of insects requires little energy consumption. One reason for this is the peculiar pattern, a figure eight configuration, of the wing movements. Windmills based on this principle, with moving vanes, are very economical and capable of functioning at low wind velocities. New principles of flight, wheelless motion, construction of bearings, various manipulators, and the like are based on the study of the flight of birds and insects, movements of jumping animals, structure of joints, and so on. Analysis of bone structure—a structure which keeps bone very light and at the same time strong—may open up new possibilities for designers.

The new technology based on the biochemical processes that take place in organisms is also largely a concern of bionics. Of great value in this connection is the study of biosynthesis, and also of bioenergetics, because the biological energy processes (for example, muscular contraction) are extremely efficient. Besides contributing to the progress of engineering, bionics also confers benefits on biology proper because it helps investigators to understand and model various biological phenomena or structures. The problems of bionics are also studied from the viewpoints of modeling, cybernetics, biomechanics, and biocontrol.


Modelirovanie ν biologii. Edited by N. A. Bernshtein. Moscow, 1963. (Translated from English.)
Parin, V. V., and R. M. Baevskii. Kibernetika ν meditsine i fiziologii. Moscow, 1963.
Voprosy bioniki: Sb. ct. Edited by M. G. Gaaze-Rapoport. Moscow, 1967.
Marteka, V. Bionika. Moscow, 1967. (Translated from English.)
Kraizmer, L. P., and V. P. Sochivko. Bionika, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1968.
Braines, S. N., and V. B. Svechinskii. Problemy neirokibernetiki i neirobioniki. Moscow, 1968.
Bibliograficheskii ukazatel’ po bionike. Moscow, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


The study of systems, particularly electronic systems, which function after the manner of living systems.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. the study of certain biological functions, esp those relating to the brain, that are applicable to the development of electronic equipment, such as computer hardware, designed to operate in a similar manner
2. the technique of replacing a limb or body part by an artificial limb or part that is electronically or mechanically powered
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005