For many researchers and designers, the greatest key to material, structural, and conceptual innovation lies in biomimicry, and its applications are as expansive as the imagination allows. For example, an international research team recently created a porous material that mimics the vascular structure of a leaf, which could improve the performance of batteries by making energy transfers more efficient, while MIT's Laboratory for Atomistic and Molecular Mechanics developed a gel-like material inspired by the strong jaw of the marine worm. And more examples of structures inspired by plant and animal systems seem to be limitless these days.
The latest interdisciplinary team to contribute to the cannon of biomimicry is from the Institute for Computational Design and Construction (ICD) and Institute of Building Structure at Structural Design (ITKE) at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. Led by ICD director and professor Achim Menges and ITKE professor Jan Knippers, the group studied the silk “hammocks” created by the larvae of leaf miner moths to look for new methods for architectural applications of composite fiber materials.
Ultimately, the ICD–ITKE team developed “a bending-active substructure and coreless wound fiber reinforcement to create an integrated composite winding frame,” according to the project description. The researchers programmed a custom-built drone to pass 184 continuous kilometers (approximately 144 miles) of resin-filled glass and carbon fiber between two stationary industrial robotic arms in order to weave a cantilever pavilion structure. Using an integrated sensor system, the robots and drone were able to adapt fiber-tension levels based on the fabrication conditions.
The final structure, named the ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion 2016–17, measures 12 meters long (about 39 feet) and weights 3,000 kilograms (about 6,614 pounds). The team concludes that, "The pavilion’s overall geometry demonstrates the possibilities for fabricating structural morphologies through multi-stage volumetric fiber winding, reducing unnecessary formwork through an integrated bending-active composite frame, and increasing the possible scale and span of construction through integrating robotic and autonomous lightweight [drone] fabrication processes." In short, the ability to build lightweight structural elements with composite fiber materials without molds or framework is not only possible, but it can also have applications at varying scales.