Professor pushes ‘learning from nature’


Ever since he was a small boy, Daniel Wiehs enjoyed observng the behavior of animals, birds and insects, and imagining how their natural abilities could be replicated in devices that could help humanity. Wiehs, now distinguished professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, shared how he has used his unique blending of observing nature and applied science to over 100 people who attended the First Annual Milford Bohm Memorial Lecture. The event was sponsored jointly by the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel Business and Technology Committee, and the St. Louis Branch of the American Technion Society, and was held in the auditorium of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum in the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building.

The late Milford Bohm, was a business leader and philanthropist in both the Jewish and general St. Louis communities. He was an ardent supporter of the St. Louis Chapter of the American Society for Technion, which supports Israel’s foremost technological institutes, from which over 80 percent of Israel’s scientists and engineers graduate. In addition, he was a founder of the St. Louis Chamber of the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce, which promoted American investments in Israeli businesses and industries, including joint ventures between American and Israeli firms. The latter organization became the JCRC’s Israel Business and Technology Committee (IBTEC), after its focus and mission shifted.


Milford Bohm’s widow, Lee Bohm, and their sons, David and Rob Bohm, have continued their support of both Technion and IBTEC, among many other causes. David and Rob Bohm now serve as co-chairs of the JCRC’s IBTEC. June Wolff, president of the St. Louis Branch of the American Technion Society and the Bohm brothers joined in welcoming the attendees and in introducing the featured speaker, Professor Daniel Wiehs.

In a brief interview prior to his remarks, Wiehs said he was “very honored to present the First Annual Milford Bohm Lecture, named in honor of a man I was privileged to know and admire as one of vision and very strong support for Israel and its economic as well as scientific and technological advancement and its security.”

Wiehs spoke of the vast potential for advanced robotics to relieve human beings of jobs most people hate to do, “those jobs that are dull, dirty, dangerous or difficult.”

“In Israel, where we place a great value on each human life, we develop devices to perform such tasks as those just discussed.” Wiehs said. “We have reached a point where systems can be made to cause other machines to perform, which can, for example control a thermostat to assure comfortable temperature in a home or room year round.”

Wiehs amazed his audience with his ability to observe animal, bird or insect traits and adapt them into various technological devices or procedures, which increase efficiency, promote health and safety, and improve Israel’s capacity to defend itself against attackers. “One of the behaviors we learn from observing swarms of bees or armies of ants is that while a single bee or ant is limited in what it can do, a whole tribe of bees or ants can accomplish many things. The same principle enables us to create groups of machines, some very small in size and scale, that can accomplish far more than individual devices.”

Wiehs pointed out that devices have been developed for nursing homes that can change bed sheets, detect when they need to be changed without disturbing the patients and turn over patients to prevent bed sores, all without direct human contact. Asked how soon such devices will have widespread use, Wiehs said, “the technology is there. It’s a question of matching sufficient funds to help hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities install them. It is a question of money rather than know-how at this point.”

Wiehs, who graduated from the Technion, and who has been on its faculty since 1967, and a full professor since 1983, describes his main interests as “aerodynamics, biological fluid mechanics, hydrodynamics and space research.” He described several examples of how he blends his diverse scientific interests and observations to achieve major breakthroughs in applied science.

One such project, which Wiehs calls, “The Hydrodynamics of Dolphin Drafting,” involved the solution to the problem of dolphins being caught in tuna fish nets, and as mammals, drowning. “For a while, this was a huge problem, and concerned consumers would be careful to buy ‘safe’ tuna, which did not involve the killing of dolphins.” Wiehs and his associates observed how dolphins jump when agitated, and developed procedures for causing them to jump out of the path of the tuna fish nets. “This worked fine for the adult dolphins, but not for the calves or pups.” Wiehs described how making practical use of the natural “drafting,” in which baby dolphins are dragged along by the flow of water around their mothers, so solve the latter problem. “Thus was solved a very serious problem,” Wiehs said.

Wiehs also described how his observations of how dandelion seeds behaved like tiny parachutes because of their comb-like structure, which is similar to the wing structure of a small insect called a thrip, could also be used for several important technological problems. “We sought to create very small machines that could make use of the unique flying ability of the thrip, which is considred a pest insect in places like India,” Wiehs said.

Devices have been developed from the thrip adaptation that can be used to detect the contents of clouds of gases. “We can shoot an unmanned cannister over such a cloud and detect exactly what kind of gas it is, so that we can deal with such things as accidents, or conventional or terrorist attacks with gases,” Wiehs said.

Wiehs also described how his observation of “lateral assymetrics in the formation flights of birds” helped him develop concepts to make use of the “tow draft” created by the lead bird or plane flying in formation. “We can have a fighter jet accompanied by a flight of un-manned ‘geese’ to check out dangers, or increase the firepower of weapons systems.”

Wiehs said that he did not regret using his scientific knowledge to develop weapons systems to protect the security of Israel. “These are not instruments of death; they are designed to protect innocent lives from attack, and I consider this a very important aspect of my research and work.”