Biomimicry Solves a High-Speed Train Problem

Kingfisher Biomimicry Solves a High-Speed Train Problem

Japan has been a world leader in the development and implementation of high-speed trains. More than 10 billion Japanese passengers are transported by rail each year, and those trains keep the population highly mobile. However, biomimicry solves a high-speed train problem.

One of the major difficulties with the high-speed rail system was that the trains had a bullet-shaped nose. That design compressed the air creating a severe shock wave every time the train went through a tunnel. This “sonic boom” was especially bad in cities, and because Japan is densely populated, the sonic shock waves were a real problem.

The chief engineer for the West Japan Railway Company named Eiji Nakatsu also happened to have birding as a hobby. He was trying to solve the sonic boom issue when he saw a kingfisher dive into the water from a high elevation without even making a splash. He was also aware that owl feathers have the unique ability to absorb sound so an owl can dive quietly on its prey.

Nakatsu and his fellow engineers took the examples that birds offered and built the front of their trains with the equivalent of a kingfisher bill. They also installed a quieter pantograph design based on owl’s wings. (The pantograph is the device mounted on top of an electric train to collect the power from an overhead cable.) in 1997, trains using those designs went into service, and the tunnel problem and noise issue were resolved.

It is called biomimicry when human designers copy something they see in nature to solve a technical problem. There are many examples of biomimicry from velcro to binding straps. God thought of it first, and humans have merely learned to copy God’s design. That’s how biomimicry solves a high-speed train problem.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Reference: Smithsonian magazine, September 2012, pages 52-53.