Students present designs to NASA

A group of UCalgary engineering students get to present their ideas for space travel at a bio-inspired design conference.

By Michael Platt
Schulich School of Engineering
September 27, 2017
Updated October 11, 2017


If NASA’s deep-space research laboratories are suddenly teeming with creatures great and small, a few astute engineering students from the University of Calgary may be to blame. In plants, animals and even lowly slime mould, there may be earth-bound solutions to obstacles facing humans as they travel deeper into space — and on Oct. 10, sophomores from the Schulich School of Engineering brought their biomimicry brainstorms directly to the experts at NASA.

“It’s a mind-blowing opportunity — we had no idea this would result in a chance to present our ideas for NASA,” says Taylor Wong, a second-year electrical engineering student. Wong, who devised a space debris shock-absorbing material based on multi-layered oyster shells, is one of the select group from Schulich invited to present at the NASA-sponsored Nature-Inspired Exploration for Aerospace (NIEA) Summit at the Ohio Aerospace Institute in Cleveland.

They were joined by their professor, Marjan Eggermont who — as a featured speaker at the conference — presented a paper entitled Pigs In Space, outlining the student-designed project that resulted in so many amazing space-travel ideas sourced from nature.

“Bio-inspired design projects allow for a great deal of creativity and enhance a student’s ability to design by analogy,” explains Eggermont, senior instructor in the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering and former associate dean (student affairs) for the Schulich School of Engineering. “It also opens up a new design space as many solutions found in nature do not follow conventional engineering design practices.”

Some of the ideas submitted by Schulich School of Engineering students include:

  • Protective photonic structures based on UV-absorbing woolly hairs of the alpine edelweiss plant
  • Using the web design of the orb-weaver spider to detect and collect water vapour
  • Adapting chromophore wax from dwarf mountain pines to absorb radiation and produce energy
  • Self-cleaning, adhesive gloves inspired by microscopic gecko hairs
  • Mobile-wing spacecraft based on a butterfly’s flying mechanism


Anthony Demong, another of the Schulich students who headed to Ohio, says a chance to meet leaders in academia, industry and government takes a favourite assignment to a whole new level. “I was fascinated enough by this challenge that whenever I had time I’d do research on it,” says Demong. “I got into engineering because I love to find solutions.”

Co-sponsored by NASA, the Ohio Aerospace Institute and Great Lakes Biomimicry describes itself as “a convergence of practitioners, disciplines, bio-inspired philosophy, tools and research to benefit NASA, the nation and the planet.”

Demong’s presentation at NIEA literally stems from the stem of the pipevine, a plant that has evolved to handle injury by rapidly multiplying cells in the area of damage. “If you apply that idea to the wheels used on space exploration vehicles, a high-pressure inner material would expand to rapidly repair any damage,” explains Demong.

For Siobhan O’Dell, slime mould was the inspiration, and specifically, the way Physarum polycephalum has adapted to choose the shortest, most fault-tolerant path between food sources. “That principle can be applied for space travel through integration into an algorithm, to determine the ideal route for transportation,” she says. “Applying the algorithm using radio beacons in space can create the ideal configuration to lead astronauts home.”


A design by UCalgary engineering student Chantalle Maundy.


A design by UCalgary engineering student Chevy O'Dell.


A design by UCalgary engineering student Lawrence Cabatuondo (1 of 3).


A design by UCalgary engineering student Lawrence Cabatuondo (2 of 2).


A design by UCalgary engineering student Nicholas Wong (1 of 3).


A design by UCalgary engineering student Nicholas Wong (2 of 3).


A design by UCalgary engineering student Nicholas Wong (3 of 3).


A design by UCalgary engineering student Taylor Wong.



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