Tashi seems to have mastered his personal 'canine origami'

After All: Can engineers learn from a ladybird?

Image credit: Christine Bohling

Vitali discovers origami engineering and, with a glass of wine in his hand, ponders over its applications – both down-to-earth and airy-fairy.

At a recent dinner at my Cambridge University college, I was introduced to a young American engineer – the son of one of our Visiting Fellows.

“What kind of engineering are you into?” I asked him.

“Origami,” he answered.

He must have misheard me due to my accent.

“Sorry, I was curious about your field of engineering – not your favourite hobby,” said I.

He smiled. “I work for an origami engineering company, where we are finding practical applications for that ancient Japanese art of folding paper and other objects.”

“I know what you mean,” I interrupted. “I’ve always been hopeless in folding up my shirts to put into a suitcase without making a huge mess and have to ask my wife to do it. As my late mum used to say, my hands grew from a wrong spot, haha.”

My patient interlocutor then explained that origami engineering, still in its infancy, was not just about packing suitcases but had many practical uses – in medicine, design, robotics, space exploration, motoring and aviation and so on.

“For example, by watching how ladybugs stretch out or fold their wings, we were able to come up with better ways of folding air bags in cars,” he continued.

I wasn’t so sure about ladybirds, but once on a beach in the Caribbean I watched a sand crab neatly fold itself into a hole. Also, my Tibetan Terrier Tashi (pictured) seems to be at ease with his ‘canine origami self-engineering’ when curling himself up into a fluffy ball in his bed.

Tashi seems to have mastered his personal 'canine origami'

Image credit: Christine Bohling

The College Master’s Lodge, where the pre-dinner drinks were taking place, was gradually filling up with guests. By the unwritten rules of the High Table dinners, everyone had to socialise with everyone else, not with one and the same person.

“One of the most promising applications of origami engineering is designing the wings for the flying cars of the future,” my young interlocutor said before moving on.

That casual remark sparked my imagination. All through the dinner, I kept thinking about origami engineering and flying cars, which Wikipedia – somewhat clumsily – calls ‘roadable aircraft’. I had always been sceptical about the practicality of the latter, hampered, as one clever magazine put it, “by the lack of the infrastructure, the technology and the regulations”, and tended to regard them as yet another modern techno Utopia.

Discovering origami engineering made me rethink the whole issue. With every sip of the nice college wine, I could visualise those future cars more and more clearly. If only we could learn how to fold away and unfold the wings of the existing small aircraft, flying cars could become a reality tomorrow, because there are already several places in the world where privately owned airplanes outnumber cars! The challenge is to make the existing small aircraft ‘roadable’.

I later discovered that I wasn’t the first to have this idea. A couple of years earlier, Eann Patterson, a technology writer and professor of Engineering, wrote in his blog, ‘Realise Engineering. Origami Car-Planes’: “What if, instead of tessellating bikes, we could use origami to fold away a set of wings?”

A couple of examples. When in Alaska, I saw numerous local newspaper ads offering to buy or sell second-hand planes (including hydroplanes) and/or spare parts. Alaskans are a prosperous lot (they are exempt from federal taxes and receive an additional annual allowance from the US government), and there are thousands of aircraft owners in Anchorage alone, where parking spots for the planes are as common as supermarkets and fast-food outlets. There is also a growing problem of night-time drink-flying, when tipsy plane-owners whiz home after a rowdy evening in the bar.

In the Falkland Islands, with the area of the windswept and treeless Camp – i.e. everything apart from the ‘big smoke’ capital Stanley (population 2,500) – roughly equal to the whole of Northern Ireland and the near-absence of roads, the only effective means of communication between the settlements was a small fleet of miniature Islander aircraft, whose pilots acted as couriers for food, letters, money and gossip. The Islander that took me from Stanley to the nation’s second-largest settlement Port Howard (population 36) was also carrying beer, ice-cream, burger buns and a teenage schoolgirl travelling home for the holidays.

Yet, the world’s most small-plane-friendly place is probably Spruce Creek – a former military base and now a gated community in Florida, not far from the City of Daytona Beach. It is also the world’s largest residential airpark. Most of the homes in this ‘fly-in community’ come with their very own built-in hangars. It is a pilot’s paradise, where taxiing airplanes have the right of way on roads and weddings routinely take place in the sky.

With nearly half of the residents of Spruce Creek being plane owners, there are about 650 aircraft in the neighbourhood. Planes – from private jets to historic aeroplanes that date back to the 1940s – are kept in hangars, or parked right outside houses. One of the original runways from the former military base remains today, while others have been turned into taxiways. The town has a number of aircraft repair and fuelling stations. You can even rent a hangar if you need it.

The residents of Spruce Creek love their ‘flying town’. In the somewhat sombre-sounding words of one of the locals: “It is a cradle-to-grave community: once you move here there’s always a place for you.” As long as you can afford a private aircraft and ignore the still widespread – if statistically wrong  – association of a small plane and an early grave, I could add.  

One more interesting detail: during Christmas festivities in Spruce Creek, Santa flies in every year not on a sleigh, but in a plane, with Rudolph flying behind him.

There’s only one technological step that separates all those ubiquitous small planes from becoming ‘roadable aircraft’ – read: flying cars – and that’s that the locals have to learn how to fold up and unfold their wings.

Aspiring origami engineers should all move to Spruce Creek!

Leaving the High Table, I made an extra effort to neatly fold my white napkin (in case the origami engineer was watching).

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