Mar 23, 2018 | By Tess

As someone who is terrified of earwigs (really, they are my least favorite critter), learning that they could fly this morning was a bit traumatic. Fortunately, its not all bad news, as researchers from ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Purdue University in Indiana have been drawing inspiration from earwig wings and using 3D printing to learn more about origami design principles.

(Image: Jakob Faber / ETH Zurich)

You see, not only do earwigs apparently have the ability to fly, but their wing design is so sophisticated that it could lead to better foldable electronics, collapsible tents, and more. This is because the insect’s wings are built to fold tightly to its body when not in use, so that it can burrow into soil without damaging them.

When it finally needs to take flight, the wings expand in a single joint motion and can then retract without any muscular actuation. The wings themselves reportedly increase the earwig’s surface area by a factor of 10 (supposedly the highest “folding ratio” in the animal kingdom), and do not require any muscle activation for stability when flying—something which intrigued the researchers.

In studying the earwig’s flight mechanism, the team used 3D printing to produce a number of simplified biomimetic wing models, which integrated elastic folds to achieve a similar folding technique to real-life earwigs.

(Image: Peter Rüegg / ETH Zurich)

The various 3D printed wing-inspired models have consisted of hard plastic plates connected to each other by elastic folds made from resilin, a “special elastic biopolymer.” By varying the arrangement and thickness of the joints, the researchers were able to create different spring types, and were even able to include both rotational and extensional functions in the same joint.

The researchers have also been trying to reproduce the earwig wing’s ability to stabilize in both its folded and extended states, a feat which is achieved using its central mid-wing joint. “This point locks the wing in place in both its open and closed state,” said lead researcher Jakob Faber.

Like an earwig wing, the 3D printed wing is reportedly stable when it is unfurled and can be folded back onto itself with a simple touch. Though 3D printed prototypes are not quite as sophisticated as the earwig’s natural wing, the scientists are making headway in studying its origami-like physiology.

Down the line, the researchers believe the folding technology could be used for various applications, including foldable electronics, maps, and tents. As Faber explained: “Once you've unfolded these things, it's often impossible to fold them back to their original shape. If, on the other hand, they simply refolded automatically, this would save a lot of hassle.”

The application that has got us really excited, however, is space travel. The scientists reckon that the self-folding and self-locking origami structures could be used to produce retractable solar sails on satellites or space probes. In the context of space exploration, having the ability to expand in space without any actuators or stabilizers could help cut back on space, weight, and energy in launch missions.

The researchers recently published their study, “Bioinspired spring origami,” in the journal Science.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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