Robots & Machines

House in a Backpack? This New Material Could Make It Happen

A team of Harvard researchers have designed a foldable material that can be programmed to assume almost any shape.

Todd JaquithMarch 25th 2016

In research published in Nature Communications, a Harvard team describes a malleable, programmable material inspired by origami “snapology.”

They used extruded cubes in a proof-of-concept demonstration; the prototype was embedded with pneumatic actuators, which allowed the team to fold certain edges, which acted like hinges. Using this technique, the shape and nature of the structure can easily be changed, and even its stiffness or pliability can be manipulated.

Any kind of actuator will do, including thermal, dielectric, even water, which makes for a more adaptable and versatile material.

“This structural system has fascinating implications for dynamic architecture, including portable shelters, adaptive building facades, and retractable roofs,” explains Chuck Hoberman, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and one of the authors of the study.

Scaling up from the prototype’s minuscule size, one can envision numerous potential engineering applications, including a kind of “living” architecture that no longer relies on rigid structures, but employs fluid, programmable materials.

Disaster response, in particular, should benefit greatly—imagine portable shelters and medical tents that fit in a small case and expand automatically to a desired size and configuration.

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