Above the Fold: Origami Drives Robot, Satellite Design


Earlier this summer, Wired ran a story I wrote about a new type of solar-powered satellite. The twist? The satellite unfolds like a huge paper blossom once it’s in space, making it easier for researchers to launch large hardware up to the cosmos. (Before launch, it’s wrapped and folded up into a tiny package, then strapped to a rocket.) This collaboration between BYU and NASA is one of many origami-inspired projects found among today’s emerging technologies.

Now, researchers from Harvard say they’re working on thin, light, easily transportable robots that fold themselves up like paper. The researchers say that this technology could be applied to robots designed for space exploration, where the machines can essentially re-build and re-program themselves, free of human aid.

Check out the “self-folding crawler” in this video:

At $100, the robots are super cheap to make, and even include some paper in their composition. (Paper, as well as Shrinky Dinks. I hereby nominate this for tech story of the year, solely on that.) The idea is that they can be easily re-configured, on the go, to fulfill any number of tasks. The paper and Shrinky Dinks (!) allow the robot to be light and flexible, and to morph on command.

“In the same way that if you have a Word document and you want to change a few words — you just reprint it at your home computer — you could take a robot’s digital plan, change a few things and reprint it,” Sam Felton, a member of the Harvard team, told the press.

Robert Lang — origami grandmaster, paper crane whisperer, textile acrobat — served as a consultant on the BYU/NASA project. His career draws clear connections between the ancient Japanese handicraft and physics, as well as math. Check out his website for what he has to say on “computational origami,” a phrase that I hope reaches buzzword status in coming years.

Future pop-up technologies could include self-assembling emergency shelters, super-compact airbags for cars, and cardiac stents that safely unfold in the human body from within.

Read the Harvard press release here. And oh yeah, I’ll leave you with this:

I mean, c’mon. Do they still make Shrinky Dinks? They should. They’re retro and hipster enough. Urban Outfitters should be all over it…


How Forests Act as Mega-Shields Against Tsunami

Here’s a front-of-book story I wrote for Wired earlier this year that was cross-posted on Wired UK. It’s about tsunami.

Bad news: All the X-Men-generated force fields in the world can’t prevent ’em. And draining the Pacific? What a hassle!

Good news: Akira Miyawaki, a tree-crazed professor closing in on 90 years old, promotes protective shields using certain super strong, deep-rooting trees. The natural wall could be a game-changer for Pacific Rim dweller Japan, one of Earth’s most quake-prone nations.

Since my story was published, Professor Miyawaki’s methods have been shown to trickle into the startup world. After Miyawaki worked with Toyota to plant a garden on their campus some years ago, he inspired Shubhendu Sharma, a TED Fellow and former industrial engineer at the car company, to quit the auto industry. Sharma launched Afforestt, an effort to standardize and increase forestation around the world.

“So far, we have planted 43,000 trees for 33 clients,” Sharma told TED. The for-profit company’s clients include farmers, corporations, and city governments.

Sharma volunteered with Miyawaki to study his sapling-sprouting methodologies. Miyawaki knows his stuff — he’s planted over 40 million trees worldwide. (I can barely keep the Walmart cactus on my windowsill alive.)

See Wired’s own story about Sharma: The Next Big Thing You Missed: How We Can Manufacture Forests Like Toyota Makes Cars