Inflatable shape changing colonies assembling versatile smart space structures

Thomas Sinn, Daniel Hilbich, Massimiliano Vasile

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
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Various plants have the ability to follow the sun with their flowers or leaves during the course of a day via a mechanism known as heliotropism. This mechanism is characterised by the introduction of pressure gradients between neighbouring motor cells in the plant׳s stem, enabling the stem to bend. By adapting this bio-inspired mechanism to mechanical systems, a new class of smart structures can be created. The developed overall structure is made up of a number of cellular colonies, each consisting of a central pressure source surrounded by multiple cells. After launch, the cellular arrays are deployed in space and are either preassembled or alternatively are attached together during their release or afterwards. A central pressure source is provided by a high-pressure storage unit with an integrated valve, which provides ingress gas flow to the system; the gas is then routed through the system via a sequence of valve operations and cellular actuations, allowing for any desired shape to be achieved within the constraints of the deployed array geometry. This smart structure consists of a three dimensional adaptable cellular array with fluid controlling Micro Electromechanical Systems (MEMS) components enabling the structure to change its global shape. The proposed MEMS components include microvalves, pressure sensors, mechanical interconnect structures, and electrical routing. This paper will also give an overview of the system architecture and shows the feasibility and shape changing capabilities of the proposed design with multibody dynamic simulations. Example applications of this lightweight shape changing structure include concentrators, mirrors, and communications antennas that are able to dynamically change their focal point, as well as substructures for solar sails that are capable of steering through solar winds by altering the sails׳ subjected area.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-60
JournalActa Astronautica
Issue number1
Early online date18 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014
Event64th International Astronautical Congress 2013 - Beijing, China
Duration: 23 Sept 201327 Sept 2013


  • smart structures
  • space inflatable
  • bioinspired materials
  • MEMS
  • nanocomposite polymer


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