Inflatable Origami Structures Could Someday Offer Emergency Shelter

An applied mathematics team created origami-inspired tents that can collapse to the size of a twin mattress with ease

A white octogon-shaped origami tent sits in the woods in New England
An origami-inspired tent had to be flexible enough to inflate, but sturdy enough to withstand the elements. (Image courtesy of Benjamin Gorissen/David Melancon/Harvard SEAS)

Applied mathematics researchers at Harvard University have created origami-inspired structures that can go from flat-packed items to three-dimensional structures with the help of air pressure.

The technology works almost like an inflatable bouncy castle, but once the walls click into place, the air pressure can be removed and the structures can keep their shape, Benjamin Thompson and Shamini Bundell report for the Nature podcast. That’s because the origami designs were created to be bistable, or structurally sound in two forms, so in this case, folded and inflated. The inflatable tent is one design in a collection of bistable origami structures described this month in the journal Nature.

“It's a great bridging between the mechanics of origami—the geometry of it—and actually getting all the way to a large-scale structure. That's quite rare,” says University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign civil engineer Ann Sychterz, who specializes in deployable shelter designs and was not involved in the study, to Max G. Levy at Wired. “To actually get this work out into real life, these are the necessary types of steps.”

A bistable inflatable arch

The Nature paper shows the designs of several small-scale origami structures and two large structures, an expanding arch and a pop-up shelter. The smaller structures, which resemble small starbursts and triangles, face fewer challenges when holding their inflated shape. Large structures have to wrestle more with holding up their own weight, and structures meant to sit outdoors will contend with wind and rain.

“I believe what we’re doing is kind of origami-plus,” says David Melancon, Harvard engineering Ph.D. student and first author of the new research, to the Nature podcast. “It’s not the most purist form of origami where you start with a sheet of paper and introduce folds. For us, we’re thinking of fabrication methods that basically you don’t have to be good at origami to create the shapes.”

Instead of paper, the inflatable structures are made of pre-cut pieces of cardboard or plastic. The flat pieces are sturdy and connected to each other with hinges, like flexible tape. The team spent years researching the geometry and structural engineering details of the structures to find configurations that were flexible enough to expand when air was pumped into them and sturdy enough to hold their shape when the air pressure was removed.

“You need to carefully design its energy barrier, and that's most of the engineering game,” says lead author and Harvard applied mechanics specialist Katia Bertoldi to Wired. “It took us three years to really get to the bottom of it to figure out the geometric analysis and the experimental part—how to build it.”

The best hinges gave an audible click when they reached their stable inflated state, which Bertoldi compares to the feeling of a 1990’s snap bracelet locking into place, she tells Wired.

With the hinges solved, the team created their first large structure: a two-foot-tall, five-foot-wide arch that collapses to a sleek eight inches tall and 12 inches wide.

The tent structure is even larger at about eight feet wide and eight feet tall. In the team’s “clown car” demonstration, Melancon carries two tables, 14 chairs and a bicycle out of the tent to show just how large it is inside. But before the tent is inflated, it is only about the size of a twin mattress.

“You can imagine these shelters being deployed as part of the emergency response in disaster zone,” says Melancon in a statement. “They can be stacked flat on a truck and you only need one pressure source to inflate them. Once they are inflated, you can remove the pressure source and move onto the next tent.”

The researchers now plan to study the best methods for manufacturing the tents, and study the structures’ durability over many rounds of inflation and collapse. Ideally, it will be possible to re-use the structures at many locations, because disaster-relief structures are often left behind or destroyed, says Clemson University architect Joseph Choma to Wired.

“I am really interested in transitioning this fundamental research into solving real-world problems,” says Melancon to Nature podcast. “I’m also interested in these environmentally friendly materials. I believe origami is a very good design platform, but I’m also really interested in finding materials that could be degradable, that could be reusable, that could be recyclable and still have the same properties.”

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