Biomimicry – It’s A Bird, It’s A Train

Operating at speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour, the Shinkansen “bullet trains” of Japan have carried more passengers than any other rail line in the world. The trains offer high speed passage between several of Japan’s metropolitan areas, offering a comfortable method of traveling at mind blowing speeds. What’s more, these trains operate with a precision and efficiency unheard of in mass transit, with most trains arriving at their destination within a six second interval of the intended time of arrival.

A great deal of research continues to go into improving these fast trains, but most of it has nothing to do with speed. Rather, most of the research has to do with compliance with Japanese noise pollution laws, which do not allow the trains to produce more than 70 decibels while traveling through populated areas.

The Shinkansen are electric trains, and generally operate fairly quietly. However, the speed of travel the designers were going for on the train routes required that most obstacles be drilled through, allowing the trains to move mostly along long straightaways rather than going around obstacles. The problem that bedeviled engineers for some time involved sonic booms that were produced when the trains emerged from tunnels as a result of the air being compressed by the speeding train.

Kingfisher beaks solve bullet train sound problemsAfter several failed attempts to sufficiently mitigate the noise, the designers took a cue from nature that allowed this major problem to be handled. Noting that the awkward looking kingfisher bird, with its large head and long, narrow beak was able to dive from the air into the water with minimal splashing compared to similar sized birds or animals, the designers ran a series of wind tunnel tests, ultimately concluding that the design of the kingfisher’s bill, which makes it ideal for transitioning from air to water, could also be used for reducing the air friction caused by speeding trains moving into and out of tunnels.

Mimicking the design of the kingfisher for the nose cone of future train engines, the Shinkansen trains have successfully overcome the problem of compliance with Japan’s strict noise pollution standards. Further, the designers borrowed some “design specs” from another quiet-flying bird, the owl to further reduce the trains’ noise.

By looking at the wonders of nature, which is always all around us, the bullet train designers were able to take the lessons they had learned and solve an important problem. It kind of makes you wonder what other problems have answers to be found in nature, right in front of our eyes and just waiting to be discovered.

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Interested in seeing more interesting cases of biomimicry? Follow MI2 on Twitter where we started Biomimicry Monday. Every Monday we highlight interesting cases of biomimicry from various industries, not just healthcare innovation.

Image sources:

  • Facing page – originally posted to Flickr by KimonBerlin at & is now licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
  • Shinkansen – public domain
  • Kingfisher – public domain


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