#Biomimicry: Fish and foul find their way via magnetism, now you can too

by David Solomonoff

Recently sci-fi author Karl Schroeder speculated that advanced alien civilizations might be difficult to detect because their advanced technology had become indistinguishable from nature. Biomimicry is a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems — and may give us insight into how such an alien civilization could evolve.

One example of biomimicry is an an indoor navigation system (IPS) developed by researchers in Finland.

Many fish and migratory birds can detect differences in magnetic field strengths, which vary around the globe, allowing them to navigate over extremely long distances. For first time in any animal, scientists have isolated the individual magnetic cells in a rainbow trout that respond to these fields. The magnetism was tens to hundreds of times stronger than researchers expected, suggesting that the fish may be able to detect not only the direction of North based on magnetism, but small differences in magnetic field strength for detailed information about precise latitude and longitude.

Now researchers from the University of Oulu in Finland have created an indoor navigation system using the Earth’s innate magnetic field to ascertain your position to an accuracy of between 0.1 and 2 meters. Every square inch of Earth emits a magnetic field which is modulated by man-made concrete and steel structures. If you have a map of these magnetic fields, and a magnetometer (compass), accurate navigation is very simple indeed — all you need to make a magnetic field map, or to navigate one, is a modern smartphone.

Almost every smartphone has a built-in magnetometer, just so your phone knows which direction you’re facing in — but this sensor is apparently sensitive enough to create magnetic field maps that have an accuracy of 10 centimeters. IndoorAtlas, the company spun off by the university to market and sell the tech has an API so software developers can create apps that react to your movements. Uses could range from the banal — displaying targeted advertising on your smartphone when you enter a store — to artificial vision for the blind and for robots in low-light environments.

But ultimately the effect of such extensions to our senses will go beyond the immediate applications – they could create a radically different body image and sense of self.

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