UCF engineers take inspiration from bugs to create new technology for NASA

Aerospace engineers at the University of Central Florida are working with NASA to create deployable structures in space, drawing inspiration from nature.

Dr. Kawai Kwok, the professor leading the research, said one of the big issues in space travel is the space available on rockets to send important materials into space.

"We are talking about five meters in diameter on most of the launch vehicles we have; the payload area is five meters,” said Dr. Kwok.

So his team is looking at ways to make large components for satellites and other collapsible technology, able to change its shape on command so that it can all fit in the launch vehicle and then deploy to full size in space. They’re working on new materials in micro-architecture to do that.

However, to turn that tech into shape-shifting components for space, Kwok’s team is looking for answers a bit closer to Earth: bugs.

"Why don't we look at nature for some inspiration, because they've been doing these things so well,” said Dr. Kwok.

Kwok said his team’s looked closely at certain beetles whose wings are often much larger than their actual bodies but collapse into tiny spaces when not in use. They’re looking at other examples of this natural shape-shifting as well to try and replicate in their technology.

"See if we can try to figure out the mechanics behind it and maybe we can use it on deployable structures in space,” said Dr. Kwok. "Increase the volume efficiency, make them lightweight, just to increase the capabilities of the satellites."

Kwok said they have developed some prototypes and are working through the roadblocks right now. He said it will likely be some years before their tech ever actually heads into space, but when it’s ready, it could give astronauts more options than ever to explore the final frontier.