This summer I spent the entirety of June traveling Europe. The experience was truly a whirlwind adventure, changing my perspective on almost every facet of the human condition. In every city, from Dublin to Oslo and Dresden to Paris, I was continuously struck by the historical wonders each city had to offer--but what I wasn’t expecting was to see a glimpse into the future of urban living.
While visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum (known widely as the V&A Museum) on a blisteringly hot day, I reluctantly entered the open-air pavilion. There, I was surprised to see an exhibit titled ELYTRA, a stark contrast to the historical and anthropological exhibits within the V&A. ELYTRA is an engineering innovation that is efficient, sustainable and could likely shape the future of our public recreational spaces and architecture.
What is ELYTRA?
The structure called ELYTRA is a visiting robotics exhibit developed by architects Achim Menges and Moritz Dobelmann in collaboration with structural engineer Jan Knippers as well as Thomas Auer, a climate engineer. The interdisciplinary exhibit demonstrates the future impact of nature-inspired designs on technology, engineering, and architecture (Victoria & Albert).
The exhibit consisted of a deactivated robot sitting under the center of a complex woven structure it had built. The hexagonal pieces of the exhibit are lightweight, yet strong and durable.
Biomimicry: What you need to know
The hexagonal structure of each piece of ELYTRA was developed and perfected through Biomimetic Engineering, or Biomimicry. Biomimicry is a field defined by biologically inspired designs and adaptations derived from nature.
The history of biomimicry is vast. As early as 1000 AD, the ancient Chinese attempted to develop synthetic fabric inspired by spider silk. Leonardo da Vinci took cues from birds when designing his famed flying machine blueprints.
Today, engineers continue looking to nature in order to create new technology. Geckos’ sticky toes inspire a robot's ability to climb stairs and walls. Shark skin inspires aerodynamic low-drag swimsuits for athletes.
Biomimicry is truly an interdisciplinary and fascinating area of science and technology (Bhushan). The Biomimicry Institute explores this field and provides ways to get involved.
The inspiration of ELYTRA
ELYTRA was inspired by the hardened backs of beetles. The elytra of beetles protect the delicate wings and vulnerable body of the insect (Encyclopedia of Life). These hard protective shields perplexed engineers, physicists, and biologists alike.
How could these elytra be strong enough to allow the beetle to barrel around the ground without damaging their equipment, while simultaneously being light enough to maintain flight? The answer lay in the structural design of this material. The cross-section of the elytra surface shows that the shells are composed of small fiber bundles connecting the outer and inner surfaces, while open cavities reduce the overall weight.
Professor Ce Guo from the Institute of Bio-Inspired Structures and Surface Engineering at the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics published a paper detailing the development of a structure based on the natural phenomena of the elytra. The similarities between the elytra sample and the proposed material structure are striking.
The benefits of biomimicry
Elytra possesses "excellent mechanical properties...such as high intensity and toughness". In fact, this damage resistance is also what makes biomimetic designs like ELYTRA so sustainable – both for our environment and economy.
Just one pound of weight saved on a civil aircraft, for example, will reduce CO2 emissions by decreasing the fuel consumption. That same pound of material removed will decrease cost on that aircraft by $300. When applying that weight-saving biomaterial to a space station, one pound translates to over $300,000 of savings.
Science could advance immensely when innovations such as Guo’s biomaterial can be applied to more efficiently distribute funds (Guo et.al). In fact, a hallmark of biomimicry is its efforts towards sustainability. Goals of the field include “build[ing] from the bottom-up, self-assembly, optimize rather than maximize, use free energy, cross-pollinate, embrace diversity, adapt and evolve, use life-friendly materials and processes, engage in symbiotic relationships, and enhance the biosphere.”
Attention to how nature has crafted its materials can allow technology to co-exist more naturally with our earth, and draw attention to how much our world has been damaged by “unnatural” technology (Crawford).
In addition to the efficiency and sustainability of ELYTRA, the exhibit shows immense potential for architecture and the future of public recreational space, due its ability to evolve. The structure is what is known as a “responsive shelter”, with many sensors interwoven into it.
ELYTRA contains two distinct types of sensors that allow it to collect data about the world surrounding it. The first type is thermal imaging cameras. These sensors anonymously detect the movement and activities of the people enjoying the shade.
The second type of sensor is optical fibers running through the entirety of the exhibit. These fibers collect information regarding the environment surrounding the structure as well as monitoring the micro-climate underneath the exhibit. Explore data maps of the exhibit here.
The incredible reality of this structure is that “the canopy will grow and change its configuration over the course of the V&A Engineering Season in response to the data collected. How visitors inhibit the pavilion will ultimately inform how the canopy grows and the shape of new components (Victoria & Albert).”
Standing inside the pavilion of the Victoria and Albert Museum, it was clear that the structure would expand to follow the curve of the small pond. The simple logic of allowing the people using the space to determine its architecture was stunningly profound.
The applications of technology such as this are endless. After seeing ELYTRA, I began to notice the lack of functionality of the benches situated in the sun in Hyde Park. I couldn’t help but wonder about the impact a few ELYTRA robots could have on the space.
The best views would be comfortably shaded, inviting guests to enjoy the historic park. The infrastructure could develop around the nature of Hyde Park, just outside of the V&A museum. Frequent patrons could view their impact on the park they love and the data mapping sensors would collect valuable data. The often-expensive-to-maintain parks, planted in busy, polluted urban centers, are a literal breath of fresh air in city living. Nature-inspired innovations like ELYTRA can increase the functionality of such a space in an efficient and stable way.
The technology of ELYTRA can also apply in engineering. A lighter, stronger material will save money on countless innovations from spaceships to vehicles to handheld technology. The data mapping sensors could be applied to many different spaces, both public and private, to gather micro-climate data in real time and monitor the effect of technology on the environment. There is no doubt that biomimetic designs like ELYTRA will one day define how human technology interacts with our earth.