a team of researchers at the harvard john a. paulson school of engineering and applied sciences (SEAS) have developed an origami-like, inflatable shelter that can pop up or fold flat. made out of thick plastic sheets, the structure can maintain its shape without constant input of pressure. the bistable pop-up shelter can be used as an emergency solution in disaster zones, but also potentially as a habitat for lunar or mars exploration.


‘you can imagine these shelters being deployed as part of the emergency response in disaster zone,’ notes david melancon, a PHD student at SEAS and co-first author of the paper. ‘they can be stacked flat on a truck and you only need one pressure source to inflate them. once they are inflated, you can remove the pressure source and move onto the next tent.’origami-like inflatable shelter built by harvard researchers can pop up or fold flatimage + videos courtesy of benjamin gorissen/david melancon/harvard SEAS



drawing from origami and guided by geometry, the research team at harvard SEAS developed a library of triangular building blocks that can pop up or fold flat. these blocks can be combined in different configurations to build closed, multistable shapes. the difference with today’s inflatable structures, which are used for everything from field hospitals to sporting complexes, is that these are monostable, meaning they need a constant input of pressure in order to maintain their inflated state. 


‘this research provides a direct pathway for a new generation of robust, large-scale inflatable systems that lock in place after deployment and don’t require continuous pressure,’ says katia bertoldi, the william and ami kuan danoff professor of applied mechanics at SEAS and senior author of the paper, which was recently published in nature.






to test their design process, the researchers designed and built an 8 foot (2.4 m) by 4 foot (1.2 m) inflatable shelter out of thick plastic sheets. the building blocks of these origami structures can be mixed and matched to create a structure of any shape or size. ‘we are relying on the geometry of these building blocks, not the material characteristics, which means we can make these building blocks out of almost any materials, including inexpensive recyclable materials,’ explains benjamin gorissen, an associate in materials science and mechanical engineering at SEAS and co-first author of the paper.



‘we’ve unlocked an unprecedented design space of large-scale inflatable structures that can fold flat and maintain their deployed shape without the risk of catastrophic rupture,’ adds chuck hoberman, the pierce anderson lecturer in design engineering at the graduate school of design and co-author of the paper. ‘by using inflatable, reversible actuation to achieve hard-walled structural enclosures, we see important applications, not only here on earth, but potentially as habitats for lunar or mars exploration.’



project info:



university: harvard john a. paulson school of engineering and applied sciences (SEAS)

team: david melancon, benjamin gorissen, carlos j. garcía-mora, chuck hoberman & katia bertoldi

supported by: the national science foundation